The San Francisco Bay estuary and many associated wetlands in Marin have been added to a list of protected areas under a 1971 international treaty among 163 countries meant to limit damaging development along ecologically important waterways.
Ramsar Convention officials on Friday announced the U.S. government had added the bay as the nation's 35th "wetland of importance" under the treaty. The designation takes effect Saturday, World Wetlands Day.
While the designation will not result in new legally-binding protections for wildlife and habitat in the bay, it does focus international pressure on agencies to step up conservation efforts and may lead to additional funding for wetland restoration. The designation also means the country is committed to not promoting projects that alter designated ecosystems.
"This designation should be a point of pride for anyone living in the larger San Francisco Bay Area," said Beth Huning, coordinator of the Marin-based San Francisco Bay Joint Venture. "Despite intense urban pressures, San Francisco Bay nonetheless endures as one of our country's great natural treasures."
There are a number of waterways and wetlands in Marin that are part of the designation: Richardson Bay, Corte Madera Marsh Ecological Reserve, Marin Islands, Petaluma Marsh (which includes Bahia), Angel Island, China Camp, parts of Olampali, Bel Marin Keys, Simmons Slough, Tiscornia Marsh, Triangle Marsh, San Rafael tidelands, Beach Park, Gallinas Marsh, Pickleweed Park and a number of other smaller sites.
San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary — about 400,000 acres — on the Pacific Coast and it is widely recognized as one of North America's most ecologically important estuaries. It accounts for 77 percent of California's remaining wetlands, providing key habitat for a broad suite of flora and fauna — over 1,000 species of animals, including native and conservation status species, including wintering shorebirds.
It also provides a range of ecological services such as flood protection, water quality maintenance, nutrient filtration and cycling, and carbon sequestration.
Melissa Pitkin, spokeswoman for PRBO Conservation Science — the former Point Reyes Bird Observatory — said decades of research led to this designation.
In 1998 the Bolinas Lagoon was given a similar designation. That body of water is home to 23 rare, threatened and endangered species and 50,000 migratory birds that come though every year.
"It is a great day for the bay and a gesture of promise for its future protection," Hunning said of the designation of San Francisco Bay. "We have entered an era of restoration, a renaissance of the bay."