Morro Bay estuary is mostly healthy, a new State of the Bay report says

bswanston@thetribunenews.comApril 5, 2014 

File photo from 2012 showing divers Heather Kirsh, left, and James Schacher and Fred Harpster, right, getting ready to plant eel grass in the Morro Bay National Estuary.


Morro Bay is healthy and thriving — with only a few exceptions, the Morro Bay National Estuary Program reported at a public presentation Saturday.

About 50 people attended the event, which the nonprofit environmental agency hosted to unveil its State of the Bay 2014 report. The last time the agency released a State of the Bay report was in 2010, executive director Adrienne Harris said. The new report’s findings are based on five years of data collection and research.

The speakers at the event, held at the Morro Bay Community Center, discussed the bay’s water quality, sedimentation, habitat restoration and quality of life for birds, plants, fish and other aquatic creatures.

Lexie Bell, assistant program director for the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, proclaimed a clean bill of health for Morro Bay in most respects.

“In the big picture, we feel good about the state of the bay,” Bell said. “But there are some areas of concern.”

One such area is the stark depletion of eelgrass over the past few years. Whereas the plant used to be abundant in Morro Bay, it is now present in only about 5 percent of its potential habitat, said Ann Kitajima, monitoring program manager.

Eelgrass provides aquatic life with food, protection and oxygen. The reasons for its decline remain unclear, although evidence exists for a highly contagious wasting disease which could kill the plant. Increased sediment washed into the bay from human activities also can smother the plants.

The Estuary Program’s eelgrass recovery program has attempted to curb the problem by harvesting healthy eelgrass and replanting it in the bay. In 2010, program volunteers planted one acre of eelgrass, half of which survived. They planted two and a half acres in 2013 and will determine the project’s success this summer.

While most bird populations are stable, two bird species — the black brant and the western snowy plover — have also declined in Morro Bay. Black brant counts in the estuary have declined over 80 percent since 2002, largely due to the bird’s dependence on eelgrass for food.

Snowy plovers nest on the sand and are therefore easily disturbed by human activity. Hatch rates for local snowy plover eggs have fallen to 41 percent as of 2012, lower than average for the species.

Otherwise, the estuary generally proved healthy for both wildlife and human activity.

The bay is generally acceptable to swim in; of the eight stations tested for swimming safety, six were given a “good/very good” rating. Two stations in the Baywood neighborhood of Los Osos received a “fair” rating.

Kitajima said the bay’s waters also are clean enough for shellfish harvesting. She noted that two commercial oyster farms operate in Morro Bay waters under monitoring from the state Department of Public Health. Seven monitoring sites rated the active shellfish harvesting areas as “good/very good.”

As for wildlife, important natural areas in the estuary are under careful protection, she said. Over 3,700 acres have been protected, meaning the habitats are off-limits for development or other impactful activities. An additional 400 acres have been restored or enhanced.

While the bay itself is generally doing well, some of the creeks that flow into it from the surrounding 48,000-acre watershed show troubling signs, Kitajima said.

Chorro Creek is rated in “poor” condition for its levels of nitrate — which can encourage oxygen-choking algae blooms — as it flows past the California Men’s Colony. Kitajima said treated sewage from the prison is a likely cause.

Warden Creek in Los Osos Valley is rated “very poor” for high nitrate levels, probably from agriculture in the area, she said.

After the program, Bell said that Morro Bay’s relatively healthy status is important for a number of reasons.

“Morro Bay is important, not just for our community, but for the entire West Coast,” she said. “It is one of the few remaining estuaries that is functioning well in California and provides a resting place for migrating birds.

“And there are not a lot of places where such a variety of species thrive, like sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, rays and birds like the peregrine falcon and white pelican, to name a few.”

Much of the local economy revolves around the bay through tourism, fishing and agriculture, she said. “Morro Bay really is the center of our community,” Bell said.

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