Basic Information
Vegetation Community: Salt Marsh
Community Code: SALMAR
Vegetation Community Map

Species Information

MSP Species Background

Goals and Objectives

Goal: Maintain, enhance and restore salt marsh vegetation on Conserved Lands in the MSPA that supports or has the potential to support VF species (i.e., wandering skipper, Belding's savannah sparrow) and to incidentally benefit other MSP species (e.g., salt marsh bird's-beak, Ridgway's rail) so that the vegetation community has high ecological integrity, and these species are resilient to environmental stochasticity and threats such as climate change, and will be likely to persist over the long term (>100 years).

Regional NFO 2021

Management units: 1, 7

In 2021, evaluate existing salt marsh monitoring programs for Conserved Lands in the MSPA to determine gaps in monitoring salt marsh vegetation to assess community composition, structure and ecological integrity, and to document threats and assess environmental conditions. If there are gaps in current monitoring, develop a long-term regional salt marsh vegetation monitoring plan. The plan should include a conceptual model, specific monitoring questions, the sampling frame within the MSPA, monitoring methods, a statistically valid sampling design, permanent sampling locations, timeline, and standardized protocols. Use models predicting future sea level rise under changing climate to help determine the sampling frame. Evaluate ecological integrity at monitoring sites by integrating other types of monitoring into the long-term sampling plots, such as abiotic element monitoring (e.g., tidal flow monitoring, automated weather stations and soil sensors, GIS-data layers), ecological integrity monitoring (e.g., plant and animal communities, ecological processes), MSP VF species monitoring, and threats monitoring (e.g., climate change, invasive plants).

Action Statement Action status Projects
PRP-1 Establish a vegetation monitoring working group of scientists, wildlife agencies, land managers, and other stakeholders to participate in developing the monitoring plan. The group should also include interested parties from outside the MSPA, such as representatives from other multiple species plans in Orange and Ventura Counties and from San Diego County military bases, to create a regional monitoring program with greater efficiencies in effort and a broader inference across southern California. On hold
PRP-2 Submit project metadata, datasets, analyses, and Salt Marsh Vegetation Monitoring Plan to the MSP web portal On hold
Criteria Deadline year
Complete Salt Marsh Vegetation Monitoring Plan by 2022 2021
Threat Name Threat Code
Altered hydrologyALTHYD
Climate changeCLICHN
Human uses of the PreservesHUMUSE
Invasive plantsINVPLA
Urban developmentURBDEV
Code Obj. code Statement
PANERR-1 MON-PRP-MONPL In 2021, develop a long-term Wandering Skipper Monitoring Plan to track their distribution and status, habitat associations and level of threats in salt marsh vegetation on Conserved Lands in the MSPA. The plan should integrate with the Salt Marsh Vegetation Monitoring Plan to include sampling at long-term vegetation monitoring plots. The monitoring plan should build upon previous surveys, habitat assessments and modeling to develop specific questions, monitoring methods, a statistically valid sampling design, sampling locations, and standardized protocols for determining the status and abundance of the butterfly and for assessing habitat and threats at each sampling site to determine vegetation management needs. The plan should include guidelines for data analysis and preparation of a report with monitoring results and vegetation management recommendations.
PASSAN-1 MON-PRP-MONPL In 2019, develop a regional, long-term monitoring plan to integrate habitat assessment and threat evaluations into the Belding's savannah sparrow population monitoring conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Conserved Lands in the MSPA. Develop a sampling design and standardized protocol to assess habitat and threats at occupied, historically occupied and suitable unoccupied habitats for the sparrow. Design the habitat and threats assessment to inform regional salt marsh vegetation monitoring. The purpose of the plan is to use habitat and threat monitoring data to develop site specific management recommendations to maintain, enhance or restore Belding's savannah sparrow habitat.
PASSAN-2 MON-IMP-MONPL In 2020 or 2021, depending on timing of Belding's savannah sparrow population monitoring implemented by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, conduct habitat and threats assessment as specified in the Belding's Savannah Sparrow Habitat and Threat and Assessment Monitoring Plan and in conjunction with sparrow population monitoring on Conserved Lands in the MSPA.
California Least Tern Predator Monitoring (Ternwatchers)
Volunteer-based predator monitoring program at the nesting sites in Mission Bay. Citizen scientists are trained to monitor nesting sites for predators from mid-April through late May, with the program concluding the end of September.
Rare Plant Inspect and Manage Monitoring 2014-2026
From 2014-2026, a Management and Monitoring Strategic Plan (MSP Roadmap) monitoring objective for 30 rare plant species is to inspect occurrences to determine management needs. The inspect and manage (IMG) objective is implemented to document the status of rare plant occurrences and assess habitats and threats to develop specific management recommendations. IMG monitoring is implemented by a combination of land managers and contracted biologists in coordination with the SDMMP. Available rare plant data is posted below. New annual updates are typically posted in March. Based upon an evaluation of these data, a 2014-2026 monitoring schedule has been developed for the 30 rare plant species (attached below). Coordinating data collection across the region allows analyses of species and population trends over time and provides a better understanding of the association between habitat and threat covariates and population dynamics.
Vegetation Mapping and Classification 2012
This project first created a vegetation classification system and manual. Then, based on 2012 data, this project completed 3 tasks: Task 1. Vegetation Mapping. Task 2. Invasive Nonnative Species Plant Mapping. Task 3. Tecate Cypress Mapping. In 2014, the data was updated based on user's comments. The final products are available to download in the data section.
Wandering Skipper Surveys
Surveys for Wandering Skipper at 10 sites in coastal San Diego County.
File name Lead Author Year Type
Final Report Mission Bay Park Redfern, Chris 2015 report
High-throughput sequencing reveals distinct regional genetic structure among remaining populations of an endangered salt marsh plant in California Milano, Elizabeth; Mulligan, Margaret; Rebman, Jon; Vandergast, Amy 2020 journal article
Lagoon Restoration in San Diego County Smith, Kim 2021 powerpoint presentation
Los Penasquitos Management Final Report 2014 report
Mission Bay IBA Conservation Planning Workshop Summary 2012 workshop summary
Mission Bay Park Conservation Program: Habitat Assessment, Invasive Control, and Community-Based Habitat Restoration Redfern, Chris 2013 powerpoint presentation
MSP Roadmap Dec 31, 2016: VF Species and Vegetation Goals, Objectives, and Actions San Diego Management and Monitoring Program 2016 other
Recording - February 2023 SDMMP Management and Monitoring Coordination Meeting Vinje, Jessie; Mulligan, Margaret; Smith, Kim; Raitter, William 2023 recording
Recording - March 2021 Management and Monitoring Coordination Meeting Smith, Kim; Gibson, Doug; Stillinger, Tim 2021 recording
San Elijo Lagoon Restoration Stillinger, Tim 2021 powerpoint presentation
Spatial distribution and habitat assessment of Panoquina errans (Lepidoptera Hesperiidae) in San Diego County, California Greer, Keith 2014 journal article
Status of Salt Marsh Bird’s-beak in San Diego County, California and Baja California, Mexico in 2022 Vinje, Jessie; Mulligan, Margaret 2023 powerpoint presentation
Vegetation Mapping Western San Diego 2012 Oberbauer, Thomas; Sproul, Fred; Dunn, Jonathan; Woolley, L. GIS data
Western Spadefoot (Spea hammondii) Surveys in California, Draft Final, 2022 Heath, Jared N.; Baumberger, Katherine; Backlin, Adam R.; Rose, Jonathan P.; Clark, Denise; Halstead, Brian J.; Fisher, Robert N. 2023 report

Brief Community Description

Southern coastal salt marsh is a highly productive vegetation community full of herbaceous plants [1]. The majority of plants in this community are suffructescent, especially in the higher drier sites, and salt-tolerant hydrophytes. Vegetation forms moderate to dense cover up to 1 meter tall. Unlike northern coastal salt marsh where species are active in the summer and dormant in the winter, the southern coastal salt marsh has a longer growing season. It intergrades broadly with northern coastal salt marsh along the south central coast. Southern marshes are nowhere as extensive as the larger northern marshes.


Species special to the southern coastal salt marsh include Atriplex watsonii, Batis maritima, Lycium californicum, Distichlis littoralis, Suaeda californica, and Arthrocnemum subterminale [2]. Characteristic species include: Amblyopappus pusillus, Atriplex watsonii, Batis maritima, Cressa truxillensis, Cuscuta salina, Distichlis spicata var. spicata, Frankenia grandifolia, Heliotropium curassavicun, Jaumea carnosa, Juncus acutus sphaerocarpus, Limonium californicum, Distichlis littoralis, Salicornia bigelovii, Salicomia spp., Spartina foliosa, and Suaeda californica. Nonnative plants that have invaded southern salt marsh include: Carpobrotus aequilateralis, Mesembryanthemum crystallimum, and M. nodiflorum.

Range wide dist. status

Bays, lagoons, and estuaries along the coast from Point Conception to the Mexican border [1].

MSPA distribution

There are 2,700 acres of salt marsh in the MSPA in MUs 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, of which 2,296 acres are conserved. There are 1,557 acres in MU1 (1,260 conserved), 15 acres in MU2 (2 acres conserved), 10 acres in MU3 (0.6 conserved), 42 acres in MU6 (39 conserved), and 1,075 acres in MU7 (994 conserved).

Habitat affinities

Salt marsh is typically found along sheltered inland margins of bays, lagoons, and estuaries [1]. The hydric soils found at these sites are subject to regular tidal inundation by salt water for at least part of each year. Water and air temperatures are warmer in southern than northern coastal salt marsh. Frankenia grandifolia, Suaeda califomica, and/or Salicornia subterminalis often occur along the upper, landward edges of the marshes; Salicornia bigelovii, S. virginica, and Batis maritima at middle elevations; and Spartina foliosa closest to open water.

Ecosystem processes

Sites are subject to regular tidal inundation by salt water for at least part of each year [1].


Since 1850, 75% (5,819 ha) of Southern California salt marshes have been lost [3]. In Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego County there has been a significant increase in subtidal water while both intertidal and vegetated wetlands have decreased. There are many challenges associated with urban salt marsh restoration, including: habitat isolation and fragmentation, impacts from exotic species, the loss of transitional upland habitats, and alterations to hydrologic and sediment dynamics [4]. The development of salt marsh functions, such as biomass and nitrogen accumulation, slow with low species richness. In many marshes with hydrological modifications nonnative species have invaded the upper reaches of the salt marshes. Some hydrological connections are impaired by roads and structures, constraining the natural migration of channels, and altering sediment dynamics that often lead to lagoon mouth closures. In extreme cases of increased sedimentation, the sediment can cover vegetation and convert salt marsh to upland. The biggest threat to salt marsh are the affects of climate change through accelerated sea-level rise [5, 6], shifting precipitation patterns [7, 8], erosion [9], and changing frequency and intensity of storms [10, 11].

Special considerations

The extensive loss of salt marsh in southern California highlights the need to preserve and restore remaining salt marsh [3]. For habitats that are isolated, planting is vital for ensuring the colonization of dispersal-limited plants [4]. There are additional restoration challenges in areas where the gradual slopes between wetland and upland have been replaced by sharp transitions next to urban developments. This severely limits the ability to restore rare plant and animal populations. Additionally, salt marsh may not be able to move upslope with sea level rise due to surrounding development. There are 15 MSP species associated with salt marsh vegetation.


[1] Holland, R. F. 1986. Preliminary Descriptions of the Terrestrial Natural Communities of California. Sacramento, CA.

[2] Oberbauer, T. A., M. Kelly, and J. Buegge. 2008. Draft Vegetation Communities of San Diego County. Based on “Preliminary Descriptions of the Terrestrial Natural Communities of California”, Robert F. Holland, Ph.D., October 1986. San Diego, CA.

[3] Stein, E. D., K. Cayce, M. Salomon, D. L. Bram, D. De Mello, R. Grossinger, and S. Dark. 2014. Wetlands of the Southern California Coast: Historical Extent and Change Over Time. SCCWRP Technical Report #826. Wetlands and change over time_Aug 2014.pdf.

[4] Callaway, John C, and Joy B. Zedler. 2004. Restoration of Urban Salt Marshes: Lessons from Southern California. Urban Ecosystems 7: 107–24. doi:10.1023/B:UECO.0000036268.84546.53.

[5] Holgate, S. J. and P.L. Woodworth. 2004. Evidence for enhanced coastal sea level rise during the 1990s. Geophysical Research Letters 31:2–5.

[6] Kemp, A. C., Horton, B. P., Donnelly, J. P., Mann, M. E., Vermeer, M., and S. Rahmstorf. 2011. Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(27), 11017–22.

[7] Hamlet, A. F. and D. P. Lettenmaier. 2007. Effects of 20th century warming and climate variability on flood risk in the western U.S. Water Resources Research 43(6), n/a-n/a.

[8] Bengtsson, L., Hodges, K. I., and N. Keenlyside. 2009. Will extratropical storms intensify in a warmer climate? Journal of Climate 22:2276–2301.

[9] Leatherman, S. P., Zhang, K., and B. C. Douglas. 2000. Sea level rise shown to drive coastal erosion. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 81:55.

[10] Emanuel, K. 2005. Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature 436:686–688.

[11] Webster, P. J., Holland, G. J., Curry, J. A., and H. R. Chang. 2005. Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment. Science 309(5742):1844–1846.