3. Natural Resource Management & Conservation

Incorporating climate adaptation into natural resource management and conservation is key to decrease vulnerability and increase resilience in ecosystems. Examples include incorporating climate change into restoration activities, enhancing habitat connectivity, reducing local change, and reducing non-climate stressors that may exacerbate the effects of climate change.



Incorporate Climate-informed Guidelines into Restoration

Climate-informed restoration requires “defining goals, assessing current status and challenges, identifying and implementing appropriate strategies, and managing and assessing project performance” (Glick et al. 2011) in relation to projected climate change impacts. Coastal habitats, such as wetlands and marshes, provide critical spawning, rearing, and breeding habitat for fish and wildlife. In addition, these systems act as natural shoreline buffers to flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise. Globally, however, these habitats have been damaged, destroyed, or converted by human activities, shoreline erosion, and invasive species. The Nisqually Delta Restoration Project in Puget Sound was initiated to return tidal flow to over 750 acres in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge by removing four miles of diking, which project leads determined would restore habitats capable of ameliorating the effects of sea level rise and other climate-related changes (Feifel and Gregg 2015). Combined with the 140 acres of tidal wetlands restored by the Nisqually Indian Tribe and 25 acres of riparian surge plain forest, this project restored over 900 acres of fish and wildlife habitat. The U.S. Geological Survey is assessing how the restoration project is contributing to overall ecosystem resilience by examining sediment delivery, changes in vegetation type and cover, and species response (e.g., abundance, distribution, diversity, residence times).

The coastal habitats of Aramburu Island, located in the San Francisco Bay region, have been altered over the years by invasive and non-native plant establishment and shoreline erosion (Gregg 2010n). The Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary and Marin County are partnering on a habitat enhancement project in part to make the site more resilient to sea level rise and increased coastal storm surges and erosion. The project’s objectives are to enhance existing and create new critical coastal habitats that support fish and wildlife species, such as sand and gravel beaches, tidal marshes, and wetlands. One of the key project activities is to restore native vegetation types that are believed to be resilient to sea level rise, including lowland grassland, sedge meadows, and seasonal wetlands.


Enhance Connectivity & Areas Under Protection

This strategy includes protecting migration corridors to allow for climate-driven shifts in species’ distribution, and increasing the amount and/or improving the management of existing protected areas and refugia. Ecological connectivity supports individual species movement and large-scale shifts in species’ ranges as flora and fauna track favorable ocean conditions (Gregg et al. 2011). Habitat connectivity is supported through the removal of physical barriers and the creation of ecologically connected networks of protected areas.

Removing barriers to connectivity

The Limantour Beach and Muddy Hollow Creek dams constructed in California’s Estero de Limantour watershed in the 1950s altered freshwater flows, created fish passage barriers, and restricted connectivity between freshwater and saltwater habitats in the area (Gregg 2010o). The watershed currently supports the federally threatened steelhead trout (O. mykiss) and scientists believe that the area could support the federally endangered coho salmon (O. kisutch) if natural processes and connectivity are fully restored to support anadromous passage. In addition to acting as fish passage barriers, these dams were also believed to be at risk of failure, making them extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and increased storm surges associated with climate change. The removal of the dams in 2008 by the National Park Service has restored the natural transition zones between freshwater and saltwater habitats in the area, facilitating fish passage and connectivity.

Creating a system of ecologically connected networks

The National Marine Protected Areas Center (MPA Center) was established to create a national system of MPAs representing diverse coastal and marine habitats and cultural resources. The Center’s Strategic Plan prioritizes the establishment and management of MPAs as a key mechanism to foster resilience to climate change (Gregg 2011). Ecologically connected networks of protected areas provide protection for marine species that use different habitats and varying life stages; these corridors can facilitate range shifts of species and habitats in response to warming temperatures and other climatic factors. These networks can also increase ecosystem resilience to catastrophic events, such as mass bleaching, by including representation and replication of marine species and habitats to protect as much biodiversity as possible as well as the full range of habitat types. The Framework for the National System of Marine Protected Areas of the United States of America outlines processes for creating and expanding a national system of MPA networks (MPA Center 2015).


Reduce Local Climate Change

This strategy includes maintaining vegetation cover and sediment supply, which buffer corrosive waters, provide shade and temperature regulation, stabilize shorelines, and reduce water flows and velocity. Maintaining algal and vegetation cover, such as kelps and seagrasses that absorb CO2 from seawater, may help buffer the impacts of ocean acidification. Scientists are studying how kelp species in Puget Sound may bolster the ability of shellfish hatcheries to manage corrosive waters (Hickey 2015), and how seagrasses may ameliorate the effects of declining pH levels on local coral populations in Florida (Manzello et al. 2012).

Mangrove habitats in the U.S. Virgin Islands support diverse populations of fish species. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and Eckerd College discovered that 30 different species of reef-building corals at the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument are thriving in spite of warming temperatures by attaching to and growing under red mangroves (Yates et al. 2014). The mangroves protect corals by providing shade from solar radiation and increased temperatures that cause bleaching. Scientists discovered that some species (e.g., boulder brain corals [Colpophyllia natans]) thrived when under the shelter of mangroves but bleached in unshaded areas, which indicates that mangroves may provide climate refugia for corals.

Maintaining adequate sediment supply, enhancing sediment transport, and supporting shoreline accretion may help to counteract the effects of relative sea level rise. For example, barrier islands along Mississippi’s Gulf Islands National Seashore are rapidly eroding due to regional dredging and strong storms (e.g., Hurricane Katrina) that have altered sediment transport (Read 2015). Since the mid-1800s, the park’s barrier islands have lost 24-64% of landmass, making these sites and associated fish and wildlife species increasingly vulnerable to increasing frequency and intensity of coastal storms and sea level rise. The Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, guides restoration of the barrier islands through sand and sediment renourishment and improving placement of dredged material to facilitate longshore drift and shoreline accretion.


Reduce Non-climate Stressors

This strategy includes reducing non-climate stressors that may interact with and/or exacerbate the effects of climate change, such as pollution, destructive fishing practices, and non-native and invasive species. The cumulative effects of these stressors reduce the overall resilience of natural systems to climate change.


In Washington State, the Northwest Straits Commission and its partners are engaged in several projects to reduce non-climate stressors, including limiting polluted stormwater runoff (NSC 2016). In Ebey’s Prairie, the Island County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) installed a bioswale to absorb nutrients and toxins from stormwater runoff before it flows into Puget Sound; most of the city of Coupeville’s untreated runoff currently flows directly into the Sound (Island County MRC 2011). This runoff exacerbates decreases in pH and dissolved oxygen levels and increases nitrogen levels. This project is testing the effectiveness of bioswales to filter polluted stormwater and improve coastal and marine water quality in the area.

Pollution is also a major issue for salmon, which play a key role in tribal culture. Pacific salmon populations are threatened by changes in water temperature and chemistry, barriers to anadromous fish passage, and pollution from agricultural runoff. The Tulalip Tribes in Washington partnered with the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance and Northwest Chinook Recovery to address pollution through innovation by creating Qualco Energy, which operates an anaerobic digester (Williams 2016). The biodigester converts animal and agricultural waste that otherwise would pollute salmon-bearing streams into renewable energy, which is then sold to the Snohomish County Public Utility District.

Destructive fishing practices

At a national scale, Strategy 7.4 of the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy calls for the reduction of destructive fishing practices, overharvest, and illegal trade of fish, wildlife, and plants. This includes reducing bycatch and the use of destructive fishing practices (e.g., bottom trawling, ghost fishing) that can harm fish populations and critical fish habitat (Gregg 2010p). In 2005, The Jefferson County MRC created voluntary no-anchor zones to protect critical eelgrass (Zostera marina) habitats and shellfish harvest areas in Puget Sound from anchor damage. The eelgrass beds in the area support several species, including salmon, sand lance, and shellfish. The MRC placed indicator buoys and engaged in extensive outreach with recreational boaters on the importance of eelgrass habitats. The project has achieved a 99% compliance rate with the no-anchor zone (Jefferson County MRC 2016).

Invasive and non-native species

The Hawaiian Islands Land Trust manages the Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge off the northern coast of Maui. The refuge is located at the site of a historic Native Hawaiian fishing village and is home to one of the largest remaining intact sand dune systems in the state, as well as endangered flora and fauna, wetlands, and riparian habitats (Feifel and Gregg 2010). The site is also acutely vulnerable to sea level rise and saltwater intrusion. In addition, when the refuge was first acquired by the land trust in 2004, approximately 95% of the plants within the site were considered invasive species, which managers pinpointed as a key target upon which to focus a restoration project to increase overall system resilience. With the support of volunteers, refuge managers have engaged in a long-term restoration project to remove invasive species and plant native species to create a more resilient shoreline that can support healthy fish and wildlife populations.