Reserves Advance “Blue Carbon” Approach to Conserving Wetlands

Through guidance, tools, and workshops, the research reserves aim to make wetland conservation profitable by leveraging the carbon stored in this ecosystem.

NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserves and their partners are working to make wetlands conservation and restoration profitable while lessening greenhouse gas emissions through blue carbon financial markets. These markets balance projects that feature heat-trapping emissions with contributions that take carbon out of the atmosphere. Efforts thus far have produced the first-ever U.S. guide that makes salt marsh restoration eligible for international carbon markets; research that documents carbon storage capabilities in the marsh; workshops and school curricula on the topic; and newsletters and technical assistance.

In the race to lessen the damage of climate change, the nation’s estuaries are a powerful ally. Acre for acre, coastal marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds can absorb up to 50 times as much carbon as tropical rainforests and also store methane and nitrous oxide, two other greenhouse gases.

The following results came from research reserve efforts:

  • In Massachusetts, the Waquoit Bay Research Reserve and partners created the first-ever U.S. tool and guide on marketing the blue carbon stored in wetlands and a protocol to make salt marsh restoration eligible for international carbon markets.
  • The Waquoit Bay Research Reserve, working with other scientists, also found that the common reed stores more carbon than native marsh grasses; that restoring tidal flow to restricted or degraded marshes reduces the greenhouse gas methane; and that bringing tidal flow from Massachusetts’ Herring River back to 1,100 acres of degraded wetlands could yield a climate-mitigation value of $8 million over the next 100 years.
  • In Texas, the “Bringing Wetlands to Market” tool and guide were adapted for use in workshops by the Mission-Aransas Research Reserve. These workshops reached 318 participants in three cities and five research reserves in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico, and Texas.
  • In Florida, the Rookery Bay Research Reserve and Restore America’s Estuaries are studying the feasibility of using a planned mangrove restoration to market blue-carbon credits. U.S. investors need to know how much carbon is stored in wetlands to confidently trade on the carbon market.
  • In Oregon, the South Slough Research Reserve’s “Bringing Wetlands to Market” workshops led to the formation of the Pacific Northwest Coastal Blue Carbon Working Group. Oregon’s South Slough and Washington’s Padilla Bay research reserves are gathering data to find out how much carbon is stored in Pacific Northwest wetlands and how much greenhouse gas is escaping. Later they aim to jump-start investor confidence by calculating the carbon-market value of different restoration projects.
  • In at least six states, a blue carbon curriculum featured through “Teachers on the Estuary” workshops has reached more than 100 teachers who have educated more than 2,000 students.
  • In Alaska, the Kachemak Bay Reserve is describing to local stakeholders how blue carbon markets can be used to value Kenai Peninsula wetlands.
  • Many research reserves have partnered on projects with Restore America’s Estuaries, which leads a 1,200-member national blue carbon network and publishes a newsletter sharing the latest events and webinars.

Both internationally and in the U.S., blue carbon markets are catching on. The Environmental Defense Fund notes that carbon markets are up and running in China, Mexico, Australia, the European Union, South Africa, South Korea, and Kazahkstan. In early 2018, experts considered the European Union the world’s largest carbon emission market, with China’s market growing very rapidly.

In South Carolina’s Francis Beidler Forest at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, about 5,500 acres have been registered as carbon offsets with California’s cap-and-trade program. The 450,000 metric tons of carbon credits have brought in $3.4 Million, guaranteeing the area will always be managed in its forested state.

In February 2018, the State of California joined with the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario to announce the results of the first joint cap and trade auction. These three jurisdictions are home to 61 million people and a combined gross domestic product equaling the fourth-largest economy on the planet. Investors are very enthusiastic. On February 21, the partnership announced all current carbon credits offered—98,215,920—had been purchased, and more than two-thirds of the “vintage 2021” carbon credits have been bought, too.

The blue carbon projects were made possible by five Science Collaborative grants from NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System and efforts by the Apalachicola Bay, Grand Bay, Jobos Bay, Mission-Aransas, Padilla Bay, Rookery Bay, South Slough, Waquoit Bay, and Weeks Bay research reserves. More than 30 other partners also were involved. (Original story 2016/updated 2018)

More Information: Bringing Wetlands to Market-Gulf; Expanding Blue Carbon; Establishing Gulf Blue Carbon Network; Providing Carbon Stocks Data for Pacific Northwest Wetlands

Partners: California Coastal Conservancy, Cape Cod National Seashore, Florida International University, Friends of Herring River, Geomatics Research LLC, Graham Sustainability Institute, Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training Program Initiative, Institute for Applied Ecology, West Virginia University, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences’ Marine Biological Laboratory, National Estuarine Research Reserve Association, NOAA Office of Habitat Restoration, Oregon State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Portland State University, Puget Sound Partnership, Restore America’s Estuaries, Silverstrum Climate Associates LLC, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, TerraCarbon, The Climate Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program, U.S. Geological Survey’s Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, University of Rhode Island, Verified Carbon Standard, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Weeks Bay Foundation, West Virginia University, and the Apalachicola Bay, Grand Bay, Kachemak Bay, Mission-Aransas, Padilla Bay, Rookery Bay, South Slough, Waquoit Bay, and Weeks Bay Research Reserves