Beaches and Marine Vegetation

A functioning, resilient Puget Sound includes dynamic shorelines and extensive kelp forests and eelgrass meadows. The Beaches and Marine Vegetation Vital Sign tells us about the condition of these nearshore habitats and helps us understand whether restoration and protection efforts are working in Puget Sound.

Beaches and marine vegetation are among the most valuable and fragile of our natural resources. They are critical to iconic species like salmon and orcas and hold great cultural importance to indigenous peoples. Shoreline armor disrupts the natural supply of sediment and can lead to the loss of beaches and degraded nearshore habitat while increasing water temperatures and climate change are emerging concerns for marine vegetation health and viability.

Bull kelp forest near Ebey’s Landing. Photo credit: Rich Yukubousky.

Key Vital Sign Messages

  • Puget Sound shorelines offer habitat for small fish such as juvenile salmon migrating along the shores to reach the ocean, and beach spawning forage fish like surf smelt. Shoreline armor reduces habitat for fish and blocks the movement of sand and sediment, disrupting natural beach processes, and can block safe and easy access to the water.
  • Shoreline armor is present on 715 miles (29%) of Puget Sound shorelines and on 224 miles (34%) of feeder bluff shorelines.
  • Feeder bluffs and the use of soft shoreline techniques are getting significant attention for targeted restoration and best practices, respectively, but quantifying restoration actions and impacts is a challenge. Examples meant to overcome this challenge include Ecology’s web app for soft shore projects and restoration effectiveness efforts compiled at the Shoreline Monitoring Database.
  • Like terrestrial forests, kelp forests form extensive living structures that provide an array of valuable ecosystem goods and services. Monitoring results show stark contrasts in the status of floating kelp in different areas of Washington State. Floating kelp status ranges from stable to substantial documented decline. 
  • There are approximately 55,000 acres of eelgrass in greater Puget Sound. Approximately half of all eelgrass grows in small beds that fringe the shoreline. The remainder grows on broad tidal flats. The largest eelgrass beds are found in Padilla, Samish and Skagit Bays.
  • Soundwide eelgrass area has been relatively stable since 2000, as has overall eelgrass area in herring spawn locations during the last forty years. This is reassuring and sets Puget Sound apart from other developed areas where large scale declines are ongoing.
  • Although eelgrass populations appear to be stable soundwide, there is greater variability at smaller spatial scales, with individual sites increasing or decreasing. Eelgrass declines in the San Juan Islands are concerning. Heads of bays and inlets, where water exchange is reduced, are locations of particular concern. Local declines are likely due to a variety of stressors, such as physical damage, local water quality impairments, and eelgrass wasting disease.
  • Eelgrass health is linked to the Marine Water Vital Sign. Excessive input of nutrients and organic matter can lead to algae blooms, and overgrowth by epiphytes and nuisance macroalgae. These organisms shade eelgrass beds, and lower density and the maximum depth to which eelgrass grows. Additionally, loss of eelgrass to eelgrass wasting disease has the potential to become a major stressor under increasing climate change, as the severity of outbreaks has been linked to warmer water temperatures.

Other Resources

Marine Vegetation

Beaches and Shoreline Armor

Data and Mapping Resources


Contributing Partners