Highlighting the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) to protect our nation’s oceans and coasts, creating a framework for states to take on the primary role in managing their coastal zone. 

In 1972, the CZMA also established the National Estuarine Research Reserve System to protect selected coastal areas for long-term research, monitoring, and education. The country's 30 national estuarine research reserves create a network of protected estuarine habitat along the nation's coasts. 

The Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve was created by the Washington Legislature and U.S. Congress in 1980. Ecology manages the reserve to protect more than 11,000 acres of critical intertidal and upland habitat in Skagit County. 

The Reserve is supported by ongoing funding from NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, operations support from Ecology, as well as many other public and private sources. 

The Reserve’s mission is to promote improved management of estuarine ecosystems in the Puget Sound region through research, monitoring, education, training, stewardship, and interpretation. 


Research and monitoring of Padilla Bay and its watershed is carried out by reserve staff, agency scientists, and students and faculty from various universities. While these efforts generally focus on habitats and ecological processes in Padilla Bay, the work we do informs conservation and management of estuaries across Puget Sound, the greater Pacific Northwest region, and the nation. 

As a living field laboratory with support facilities and professional staff, Padilla Bay Reserve carries out several programs and activities to meet the needs of the state Shoreline Management Act and federal Coastal Zone Management Act

Graduate students can receive fellowships at Padilla Bay to support their post-graduate and doctoral work. Monitoring programs, specifically water quality and critical species issues, are important to helping us formulate science-to-management decisions. Data and resulting knowledge are transferred to local, regional, state, and national audiences. 

The Reserve can provide various forms of support to research projects conducted within the reserve boundaries. Support may be in the form of funding graduate research fellowships or collaboration on externally funded grants. 

On-site support facilities include: 

  • Research laboratory with space available for visiting scientists and students 

  • Guest house providing overnight accommodations 

  • Equipment and instrumentation for conducting ecological field research 

  • A research library that includes Padilla Bay technical reports and reprints 

  • Limited boat support for access to sample sites in Padilla Bay and adjacent waters 

Learn more about research at the Reserve

Resource management and stewardship 

Padilla Bay Reserve is especially valuable because it is home to the largest contiguous eelgrass bed in the lower 48 states. The bay's 8,000-acre eelgrass bed is used as a nursery by juvenile salmon, crab, and herring. Healthy seagrass beds can absorb and store large quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere, which can help protect us from the effects of climate change. By protecting the Padilla Bay eelgrass beds and neighboring salt marsh habitat, we're preserving a coastal blue carbon resource that works to combat global warming. 

Eelgrass restoration aligns with management strategies for the recovery of essential nearshore fish habitat for listed salmonids, rockfish, and other species of recreational and commercial importance. As a result of its many benefits, eelgrass is important to the state Shoreline Master Program and restoration efforts by the Puget Sound Partnership

Above water, Padilla Bay provides critical habitat for waterfowl and marine birds. It also helps to clean toxins and pollution from water that travels from the land out into Puget Sound. 

Boy with blonde hair and girl with brown hair touch sea stars in a touch tank


The Reserve offers a variety of educational programs for school groups, children, families, and adults, which focus on estuary ecology, healthy watersheds, and how people’s actions and decisions affect the Salish Sea. The Breazeale Interpretive Center at Padilla Bay features interactive exhibits, saltwater aquariums, a hands-on touch pool, and classrooms for learning about the Salish Sea and the unique estuary.  

The Reserve’s educators are ready to share their love of the bay and their excitement about hands-on learning. 

Whether you are a classroom teacher, scout leader, home schooler, or local community group, consider coming by the Reserve and participate in a program with Padilla Bay educators, who look forward to providing a program to meet your educational needs. Find out more about the Reserve’s classes and events

Technical assistance and professional development 

The Coastal Training Program is a part of a national initiative being implemented through the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Its purpose is to help coastal managers gain a better understanding of environmental issues, science, and environmental regulations. 

The Program is funded through NOAA's National Estuarine Reserves Division and implemented in Washington state by the Reserve.  

Representatives from the Ecology, Washington Sea Grant, Puget Sound Partnership, and local shoreline planning representatives serve on an Advisory Group to oversee the program’s design and development. 

For a list of upcoming events and to learn more, visit the Coastal Training Program website

Northwest Straits Commission 

The Northwest Straits Commission, an organization housed in Ecology’s Shorelands and Environmental Assistance program, is also located at the Reserve and was established to work with coastal counties to protect and restore the unique, rich marine ecosystem of the Northwest Straits region of Puget Sound through a local-based approach.  

“NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) wanted to establish a marine sanctuary up here in the northern part of the Puget Sound, and all the local communities were not interested in the federal government having a big, active role here,” Reserve Director Jude Apple said. “So, they created the Northwest Straits Commission, which ... is responsible for getting funds to each one of the Marine Resource Committees. Each county has a Marine Resource Committee, which is made up of local stakeholders that oversee local coastal restoration and high-priority issues.” 

The Commission provides funding, training, and support to seven county-based Marine Resources Committees that deliver coastal restoration, education, and monitoring projects. It facilitates regional coordination and connects committee work to regional planning processes like the Puget Sound Partnership Action Agenda. It also takes on and manages regional projects such as training volunteers to identify forage fish spawning sites and trap invasive European green crab. 

Aerial view of Padilla Bay

Learn more about the Reserve 

We welcome you to come visit the Padilla Bay Reserve and enjoy the trails, bird watch, or just sit on the observation deck and take in the beauty of the bay. Learn about birding and special events, trails, and boating opportunities at the Reserve. Our trails and parking lot are always open. 

For more information about visiting the Reserve or volunteering, visit the Contacts webpage or call 360-428-1558. 

Don’t forget to sign up for the quarterly Padilla Bay e-newsletter!