Managers need to predict how animals will respond to habitat redistributions caused by climate change. Our objective was to model the effects of sea level rise on total eelgrass (Zostera marina) habitat area and on the amount of that area that is accessible to Brant geese (Branta bernicla), specialist grazers of eelgrass. Digital elevation models were developed for seven estuaries from Alaska, Washington, California (USA), and Mexico. Scenarios of future total eelgrass area were derived from combinations of estuarine specific sediment and tectonic rates (i.e., bottom change rate) with three rates of eustatic sea level rise (ESLR). Percentages of total eelgrass areas that were accessible to foraging Brant were determined for December when the birds overwinter at more southerly sites and in April as they move north to sites where they build body stores on their way to nesting areas in Alaska. The modeling showed that accessible eelgrass area could be lower than total area due to how daytime low-tide height, eelgrass shoot length, and the upper elevation of eelgrass determined Brant-reaching depth. Projections of future eelgrass area indicated that present-day ESLR (2.8 mm/yr) and bottom change rates should sustain the current pattern of estuarine use by Brant except in Morro Bay, where use should decrease because eelgrass is being ejected from this estuary by a positive bottom change rate. Higher ESLR rates (6.3 and 12.7 mm/yr) should result in less Brant use of estuaries at the northern and southern ends of the flyway, particularly during the winter, but more use of mid-latitude estuaries. The capacity of mid-latitude estuaries to function as Brant feeding refugia, or for these estuaries and Izembek Lagoon to provide drift rather than attached leaves, is eventually limited by the decrease in total eelgrass area, which is a result of a light extinction affect on the eelgrass, or the habitat being pushed out of the estuary by positive tectonic rates. Management responses are limited to the increase or decrease of sediment supply and the relocation of levees to allow for upslope migration of eelgrass habitat.
Additional publication details
Predicted eelgrass response to sea level rise and its availability to foraging Black Brant in Pacific coast estuaries