Celebrate National Estuaries Week (Sep. 17–24)

Working to restore, conserve, and protect estuary habitat to benefit fish, wildlife, and people

Washington is home to nearly 2,700 miles of coastline and estuaries, which are an important part of our culture and our natural heritage. Along the coast, estuaries are centers of activity! This is where freshwater rivers meet the saltwater of the ocean, providing rich food resources and creating the perfect place to support a wide diversity of plants and animals. Estuaries are also often a popular place to build our communities due to their importance as transportation hubs and because they are locations of great beauty.

Nisqually estuary in south South Sound.

What is an estuary?

Estuaries are bodies of water where the freshwater of rivers meets the saltwater of the ocean or Puget Sound, creating an environment that is a mixture of saltwater and freshwater. Throughout history, estuaries have been vitally important for Native American cultures, and they are home to more than two-thirds of Washington’s commercially important fish and shellfish. Many species either live their whole lives or depend upon estuaries for a variety of life-stages.

  • In intertidal and subtidal zones, channels may be lined with eelgrass, the home to invertebrates who serve as an important food resource for Brant geese, as well as for commercially important species such as Dungeness crab and red rock crab, Pacific herring, salmonids, shrimp, and flatfishes.
  • Salt and brackish marshes and intertidal mudflats are important habitats used by insect larvae, amphipods (shrimp-like animals), polychaetes (marine worms), snails, and other invertebrates. These species are prey for numerous fish and wildlife, including waterfowl, shorebirds, herons, raccoons, otter, mink, salmon, and steelhead.
  • The mixture of freshwater and saltwater in estuaries also allows juvenile anadromous salmonids to acclimate to the changing environment during their migration from their freshwater natal streams to the sea where they will spend most of their adult life.
Juvenile Chinook salmon are one of nine types of anadromous salmonids that rely on healthy estuaries. Other salmonid species include chum, pink, coho, and sockeye salmon; steelhead, sea-run coastal cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden, and bull trout. Photo by Morgan Bond.

Are estuaries in trouble?

There are a number of threats to Washington’s estuaries — invasive species, development, and sea level rise are the three most significant.

Spartina (left), European green crab (center), New Zealand mudsnails (right)
Bulkheads like this one can confine the beach to a narrow strip of gravel, and cut off the connection between land and water. Photo by Christopher Dunagan.
Fir Island Farm Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area managed by WDFW. Photo by Marlin Greene, One Earth Images.

What is WDFW doing to help?

WDFW is dedicated to protecting and restoring all nearshore habitat and environmental processes that are important to the species of greatest concern. From leading projects on the Department’s lands to providing incentives for shoreline landowners, WDFW provides technical expertise, project assistance, and funding opportunities to support and restore marine shoreline habitats.

Protect

One way to provide protection for fish and wildlife species is to track information about key species, their threats, and where it is most important to protect them. The Department’s Priority Habitat and Species Program is our way of transferring fish and wildlife information from our resource experts to local governments, landowners, and others who work to protect habitat. The relatively undisturbed nearshore estuaries of Washington’s outer coast including Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the mouth of the Columbia River are identified as priority habitats for conservation and management. This information is used by cities and counties to implement and update land use plans and development regulations under the Growth Management Act and Shoreline Management Act.

Restore

WDFW is dedicated to protecting and restoring all nearshore habitat and environmental processes. Some examples of completed projects include:

  • 11 relict channel crossings were removed and fill material used to create mounds for floodplain complexity
  • Over 7,000 feet of drainage ditches filled
  • 16 acres of historic wetlands restored
  • 3,300 feet of natural tidal channel restored by removing derelict farm road crossing and widening the channel
  • Replanted 10 acres

Programs to Support Other Work

Through a number of programs and partnerships, the Department provides resources and/or technical assistance to other organizations to restore, conserve, and protect estuary habitat throughout Washington.

What can I do to help?

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.