NOAA Selects Areas for Targeted Habitat Conservation Efforts


Two sites in NOAA’s North Atlantic Region as the next Habitat Focus Areas under NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint. The Penobscot River watershed in Maine and the Choptank River complex in Maryland and Delaware are areas where the agency will focus its resources to support habitat conservation and restoration.

“Many NOAA offices already are actively engaged with federal, state and local partners to protect and restore habitat in both of these areas,” said John Bullard, regional administrator, NOAA Fisheries, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, which covers the Great Lakes and federal coastal areas from Maine to North Carolina. “However with the designation, we’ll gain efficiencies and be able to direct our collective internal resources to further achieve benefits for communities and natural resources.”

The North Atlantic includes a variety of habitats such as salt marshes, rivers, seagrass beds, and shellfish reefs. Both selected areas have experienced habitat degradation and face challenges from pollution, development, overfishing, invasive species, and barriers to fish passage. This has reduced the resilience of fish and other wildlife communities, degraded water quality and habitat health, and impacted public use and tourism.

Penobscot River Watershed, Maine

The Penobscot River is New England’s second largest river. It provides habitat for 11 sea-run fish species, including three listed under the Endangered Species Act, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon. The river is host to the largest run of Atlantic salmon in the United States. It also is home to the Penobscot Indian Nation. Despite its low population density and forest-lined banks, dam and culvert construction, water pollution and overfishing have degraded the watershed. Many sea-run fish species are no longer abundant, which has impacted commercial, recreational and sustenance fisheries that target them.

NOAA selected the Penobscot River watershed as a Habitat Focus Area for several reasons. Federal, state, and local organizations already are collaborating to protect and restore habitat and study fish populations. As a result, there is abundant monitoring data (pre- and post-dam removal) to inform future work. NOAA’s investments include large-scale projects like the removal of the Veazie and Great Works dams. However, endangered Atlantic salmon and other wildlife can still benefit from the removal of smaller dams that block their access to historic habitat.

“Over the years, we’ve made a significant investment both in terms of staff time and funding to restore sea-run fish for the benefit of the aquatic ecosystem and human communities that depend on them,” said John Catena, supervisor, Habitat Restoration Center Northeast and Great Lakes Regional Office. “Our future efforts will be focused on identifying priority areas for fish passage, removing dams, replacing culverts and enhancing flood forecasting capabilities.”

Choptank River Complex, Maryland and Delaware

The Delmarva Peninsula is bounded by the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east; the Choptank is the largest river on the Delmarva Peninsula and empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the surrounding land is currently used for agriculture. However, growing populations and land development threaten the traditional agricultural base as well as working waterfronts and natural shorelines and marshes. These landscape changes will continue to impact fish like menhaden, river herring and shad, prey for commercially and recreationally important species like striped bass, weakfish, bluefish and predatory birds such as osprey and eagles. Once-abundant Eastern oyster populations have been reduced to just 1 percent of historic levels. Oysters help filter water and oyster reefs provide critical habitat for a range of Chesapeake Bay species, including juvenile and adult blue crabs and finfish.

“The Choptank River Complex is a microcosm of the many tidal tributaries in Chesapeake Bay – and of great importance to ensuring sustainable fisheries and coastal economies. Working with partners at NOAA and around the area, we hope to successfully protect and restore the ecological health of this watershed and apply the habitat blueprint model to other coastal ecosystems throughout the region,” said Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office.

NOAA conducts mapping and acoustic survey work in the Chesapeake Bay, including the Choptank River watershed, to support native oyster restoration. NOAA also funds on-the-ground restoration work and applied research to quantify how oyster reefs provide ecosystem services. Areas in several subtributaries in the Choptank River were designated as oyster sanctuaries by the state of Maryland. This affords an excellent opportunity for intensive oyster restoration on an unprecedented scale. NOAA has also conducted extensive environmental monitoring programs. Data generated will help managers address future challenges due to storm flooding, sea level rise, barrier Island movement, degraded water quality and wetland loss.

NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint

The Habitat Blueprint is NOAA’s strategy to integrate habitat conservation throughout the agency, focus efforts in priority areas, and leverage internal and external collaborations to achieve measurable benefits within key habitats such as rivers, coral reefs, and wetlands. Under the Habitat Blueprint, NOAA selects certain Habitat Focus Areas to prioritize long-term habitat science and conservation efforts.

The goals in Habitat Focus Areas include:

  • Sustainable and abundant fish populations
  • Recovered threatened and endangered species
  • Protected coastal and marine areas and habitats at risk
  • Resilient coastal communities
  • Increased coastal/marine tourism, access, and recreation

NOAA’s first Habitat Focus Area was California’s Russian River watershed. Two sites in the Great Lakes and two other sites in the Pacific Islands were subsequently selected as Habitat Focus Areas. NOAA’s work is generating results. For instance, in the Russian River watershed, tributaries were reopened for coho salmon to reach breeding grounds, underwater antennas were installed to track the number of salmon returning from the ocean to spawn, and habitat was improved to recover fish populations.

Next steps for the Penobscot River watershed and the Choptank complex include developing implementation plans for each area. NOAA will also begin the selection process for the next Habitat Focus Areas in other U.S. regions.

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