In 2013 NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) identified several key factors that negatively impact estuaries throughout the United States. With a total of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves, the US is well positioned to study how climate change influences places where the ocean meets the land.
Flood control, aquatic nurseries and wildlife habitat are just three of the many ways estuaries contribute to coastal ecosystems. Located wherever rivers meet the sea, these habitats are indicators of ecological stress because their structure and productivity can be easily measured. The NOAA report identified a number of key factors that serve as underlying stressors to the stability of estuarine habitats. With 40 percent of all Americans (123 million people) living in counties along the coast, it should be no surprise that human settlement is the key source of ecological instability throughout these wetland communities. Industrial, residential and agricultural development all contribute to increased sedimentation and shoreline erosion. Often flooded by toxins that originate upriver or along the coast, estuaries are subject to spikes in chemical pollutants and human waste. Furthermore, the planet’s historically high warming trend now causes some estuaries to flood while others to suffer a loss of biodiversity due to increasing salinity from draught or the depletion of freshwater reservoirs by human activity.
Nestled between Santa Cruz and Monterey California is one of my favorite locations to photograph coastal wildlife. The Elkhorn Slough is a seven mile long intertidal habitat where the Carneros Creek flows into an “elbow-like” bay that extends inland from the coast. Home to nearly 700 species that includes more than 300 resident and migrating birds, seals, sea-lions and otters, the slough is a remarkable place to view and photograph a wide diversity of unusual animal and plants.
The Elkhorn Slough is a rare gem along the Central California coast. A hot spot of estuarine biodiversity, the stretch of water and land provides amazing photographic opportunities for both the casual and serious wildlife viewer. During low tide, the state beach road north of the slough is a great place to find shorebirds feeding on crustaceans buried deep within intertidal mudflats. Continuing west towards the beach, there is a network of trails that branch throughout a unique salt marsh habitat. For those hoping to see and photograph otters and seals, I recommend a private charter or group tour with Elkhorn Slough Safari. The flat-bottomed boat is a great platform for making images, and if you warn the captain and first mate about your photographic intentions, they will try to put you in the right place to make the images you are seeking. Weekend warriors and adventure seekers may prefer kayaking the slough in place of a leisurely motorboat ride. During our most recent visit, Tamy and I rented kayaks from Kayak Connection in Moss Landing. The four hour rental made for unprecedented opportunities to view and photograph marine wildlife “eye to eye.” While making pictures from a relatively unstable kayak takes practice, the ability to control your destination and time at each location was well worth the effort.
Marinas, fishing, farms and a power plant fuel the economy of Moss Landing and the region that surrounds the Elkhorn Slough. Like most of the California coast, the Slough is subject to the impacts of human encroachment. Yet, this ecosystem is a model for how citizens, non-profits organizations, government and scientists can work together to meet conservation targets. If you are interested in seeing and photographing the slough, check out the Elkhorn Slough Foundation for information related to their research and public outreach programs.
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