Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seagrass beds of Tomales Bay, California, a Carbon Sink

Seagrass beds (of Tomales Bay, CA) are "a carbon sink, removing or sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere."

Tomales Bay slips under scrutiny

Andrew DeFeo, 2009-12-23

Boat owners of the nearly 200 vessels scattered throughout Tomales Bay moor any way they like. Some use old engines and tractor tires. Almost none of the vessels have permits. That could change soon, if regulators finalize a vessel management plan—a series of regulations and advisory measures that would protect the biological diversity of the bay.

After 15 years of attempting to set up a comprehensive plan, associated regulatory agencies say it could take a few more years. It is a welcomed stall for boat owners who could be forced to buy costly permits and replace mooring devices. But environmentalists worry that an unregulated waterway may be destructive to the local habitats of thousands of animal species.
Bay bureaucracy

Thirteen local, state and federal regulatory bodies hold some authority over Tomales Bay, which the California Coastal Commission designated a Special Resource Area and the United Nations named a Wetland of International Significance. In 1994, the agencies convened to discuss plans for new regulations. The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) published a report in 2007 that was a precursor to the Vessel Management Plan. Its goals included the protection of seagrass and a defined permitting process. It also assessed the safety and legality of current moorings.

According to the GFNMS report, all moorings placed in the bay, excluding commercial moorings, were illegal. “In the 90s, the GFNMS met with boat owners in an attempt to get regulations set, but nothing went through,” said Mark Bartolini, a founder of the Tomales Bay Boaters Association. “Boat owners have been able to come to some process over time but the agencies have been unable to do so. It’s sort of ironic that the organization came out and said that our moorings were illegal.”

During a 60-day public comment period after the release of the 2007 report, boat owners and coastal businesses spoke loud and clear. The GFNMS decided to set up a group of volunteer advisors. For over a year, a group of 13 local stakeholders, including representatives from Lawson’s Landing, Marshall Boat Works, the Environmental Action Committee and Sierra Club, have met to develop recommendations for GFNMS.

The work group had their last official meeting in April and is preparing a final document to present to another advisory committee, which will in turn make recommendations to GFNMS Superintendent Maria Brown. After the vessel management plan is drafted it will need to be reviewed by the 12 other regulatory agencies, and will be subject to either the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In short, it’s going to be a while.


The work group made recommendations on three primary issues: mooring options, water quality and the permitting process. They spent a lot of time debating how to protect eelgrass, a resource that biologists and environmentalists say is essential to life in and around the water.

Dominique Richard, an Inverness resident and work group leader, says most boats already avoid seal haul-outs and eelgrass, which tends to hug the shore. The GFNMS has already defined no-anchor zones, but a concern remains that many moorings, which include cement blocks and steel drums, may be damaging the ocean floor.

Seagrass beds act as buffer zones, preventing coastal erosion and trap sediments reducing excess nutrients and pollutants. The plant is a carbon sink, removing or sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. Eelgrass provides breeding and nursery grounds for herring, which attach their eggs directly to the blades, and provides habitat for migratory birds.

“Vessels anchoring in these sensitive habitats can result in anchor dragging, creating trenches and redirecting subtidal channels, eventually artificially changing the flow of the bay,” said Mary Jane Schramm, spokesperson for GFNMS. “Having a mooring plan helps vessel operators understand impacts and what options they have.”

As one option, the work group suggested further development of mooring fields. Areas off of Chicken Ranch Beach and Marconi Cove have historically been used as mooring fields—areas where multiple anchor sites are established. But these sites lack the fee structure and permit process that GFNMS would require.

With respect to the testing of newer, more expensive anchoring equipment, some work group members worry that a demand to install these devices could pose a cost too high for some boat owners. “It was asked of the advisory committee that reasonably priced alternatives are tested, because we don’t want to see boat owners fined or put out because they can’t afford to anchor their boats,” said Fred Smith, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee.

A month ago, a twin-engine boat from Bodega Bay Marine Lab matched its torque against the ocean floor in a series of mooring device tests in Tomales Bay. After ripping old and new anchors from the sea bottom, testers found that the traditional concrete block and chain device was adequate in keeping boats steadily floating—and even better in some cases—than their more expensive, technologically advanced counterparts. The committee is asking GFNMS to take this into account, and to review the safety of moorings case by case.

Most boats avoid eelgrass because they anchor in 20 or so feet of water to compensate for changing tides, while the grass generally doesn’t grow in more than eight feet of water. Right now, eelgrass is actually spreading in the bay, Smith said. Yet no one is sure if and how this growth pattern will change.

The group asked that the bay be a non-discharge zone, meaning that boats would no longer be allowed to dump any waste, even treated waste. They recommended setting up collection facilities or dump stations. A pump-out facility at Sacramento Landing or Marshall Boat was suggested, where boats could drop off waste that would later be removed, possibly by an inland sewer system. But such a system would be expensive, and Sacramento Landing would have to extend its pier.

“We have made recommendations, but the costs are another obstacle. The county will need to work with GFNMS and business owners if these projects are going to get started,” Richard said.

When GFNMS finally decides where a boat can rest, it will need to establish a permitting process. Currently, only one privately owned vessel has a permit from the State Land Commission. Sarah Allen, a science advisor for Point Reyes National Seashore, remembers the process of getting the permit taking over a year and involving plenty of paperwork. “I don’t think most people go through the permitting process because they aren’t aware of all the steps they need to take,” she said.

Although the state commission has jurisdiction over permits, other agencies, including the California Coastal Commission, the California Department of Boating and Waterways and National Park Service, also have jurisdiction. Though private homeowners have legal rights to set up a mooring or pier directly in front of their property, other boat owners do not have that luxury.

Boat owners will have to wait for an agency to take over the splintered system. “We would like to see moorings on the bay,” said Willy Vogler, co-owner of Lawson’s Landing. “And if that is going to happen, there needs to be oversight, and if there is going to be a permitting agency, we would like to see one.”