APRIL 1996

APRIL 1996 FULL ISSUE

WHERE THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA
CASCADIA'S ENDANGERED ESTUARIES

By PAUL FELSTINER

The meeting of ocean and river creates one of the richest types of ecosystem on Planet Earth. The mixing of fresh and saltwater, extensive intertidal marshes and mud flats, protection from the violent surf of the open shores; these factors combine to make the estuary an ideal environment for aquatic life to flourish.

Although small in area these ecosystems are large in terms of productivity. Not only do bays and estuaries support important clam, crab, fish, oyster and shrimp fisheries conveniently close to shore, but they also nurture the eggs and juvenile stages of many species found in the open-ocean as adults. Here, salmon adjust to saltwater and gain vital nutrition for their ocean migration here. When they return to spawn it is also here that they eat their last meal.

Estuaries are magnets for migrating birds. In winter, the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary hosts over one million ducks, one-quarter of a million geese, and thousands of other migratory waterfowl. Estuaries up and down the Northwest coast harbor threatened and endangered avian species such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, clapper rail, and marbled murrelet.

But today, from San Francisco Bay to the peaceful waters of Puget Sound, Pacific Northwest bays and estuaries are as endangered a an old-growth forest. Shellfish beds are closed by fecal contamination, toxic substance are accumulating in the food chain, development continues to chew up what little nearshore habitat is left, and fish populations are in serious decline - not just salmon but other species too.

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Paul Koberstein