Commissioner Franz Establishes State’s First “Protection Zone” for Kelp and Eelgrass
News Date: 
March 21, 2022

Executive order will preserve 2,300 acres of valuable habitat at mouth of the Snohomish River

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz today announced a first-of-its-kind Kelp and Eelgrass Protection Zone to conserve 2,300 acres of valuable habitat near the mouth of the Snohomish River. The announcement follows the release of Commissioner Franz’s Watershed Resilience Action Plan, a 10-year plan for landscape-scale “tree to sea” restoration of salmon habitat in the Snohomish River watershed. The Protection Zone accomplishes one of the plan’s core initiatives just a month after its release.
Commissioner Franz, leader of the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), signed a Commissioner’s Order that will prevent any development in the zone for the next 50 years. The zone includes a forest of bull kelp at the southern tip of Gedney, or Hat Island, and eelgrass meadows along the Snohomish River Delta and the shoreline of the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
“Our kelp and eelgrass are the breadbasket of the Salish Sea. They’re critical to the survival of our dwindling salmon and orca populations and act as a vital indicator of the health of our waterways because they respond so quickly to changes in water quality,” said Commissioner Franz. “Climate change doesn’t just impact our lands, it impacts our waters. We are witnessing a precipitous decline in kelp and eelgrass throughout Puget Sound.

“Today, we are taking unprecedented action to protect kelp forests and eelgrass meadows that remain, and restore areas where they can be reintroduced.”

Kelp and eelgrass provide juvenile herring, salmon, rockfish, and abalone the shade and camouflage they need to grow and support the marine food web for salmon, marine birds, and orcas. They absorb carbon at significantly higher rates than terrestrial forests, maintain shoreline stability, and provide refuge from ocean acidification for juvenile shellfish. Tribes along the Salish Sea have relied upon seagrasses and kelp for generations.
“Salmon are an integral part of Tulalip culture and lifeways,” said Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin. “Eelgrass and kelp play an important role as habitat for salmon and as a buffer against climate change effects. Working together with our partners at DNR and Snohomish County we continue to find ways to improve quality habitat for these threatened species.”
DNR research has found bull kelp in South and Central Puget Sound declined by more than 80% in the last 150 years. DNR has also documented severe declines in eelgrass meadows in the San Juan Islands over the last 20 years.
Zone Complements Ongoing Conservation Efforts
The Protection Zone not only fulfills goals set out in the Watershed Resilience Action Plan, but also meets nearly 25 percent of DNR’s goal to conserve and restore 10,000 acres of kelp and eelgrass, set by Senate Bill 5619. SB 5619, which passed both houses of the Legislature earlier this month, increases funding for DNR’s programs to proactively assess and prioritize areas for coordinated conservation and restoration of kelp forests and eelgrass meadows throughout Puget Sound and along the Washington coastline.
“When we preserve kelp and eelgrass forests, we protect marine animals and endangered species, our climate through carbon sequestration, fish supply for fisherman, and homes on the shoreline from storms,” said Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham). “I applaud the work of Commissioner Franz, DNR staff, and community members who are working to preserve our aquatic lands for generations to come.”
The protection zone also builds on goals laid out in the multi-partner 2020 Puget Sound Kelp and Conservation Plan and DNR’s 2015 Eelgrass Recovery Strategy.
“Protecting critical habitat requires partnerships between Snohomish County and our state, local, and tribal partners," said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. "Forming a Kelp and Eelgrass Protection Zone is an important step toward protecting these vital resources along the shoreline of Puget Sound, including the eelgrass meadows within the Snohomish River delta. Kelp and eelgrass both perform a variety of ecological functions that are critically linked to the health of the Puget Sound and nearshore ecosystem.”
“Healthy eelgrass and kelp beds are essential for our endangered salmon," said Snohomish County Surface Water Director and Co-Chair of the Snohomish/Stillaguamish LIO Executive Committee Gregg Farris. "Eelgrass is used as migratory corridors for juvenile salmon as they travel from our rivers to Puget Sound. Kelp and eelgrass both provide protection from predators and abundant food for salmon and the prey they depend on. We appreciate the steps DNR is taking to protect this critical habitat.”
“In 2020, the Snohomish Marine Resources Committee worked with Snohomish County Surface Water Management and DNR to survey and map the presence of marine vegetation within the Snohomish estuary and along the County’s nearshore, including kelp and eelgrass," said Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee Co-Vice Chair and Marine Vegetation Project Lead Tom Doerge. "We are pleased to see the data that we gathered being used to help inform the protection of these important ecosystems.”
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