Eelgrass, a marine plant that grows in the nearshore photic zone, provides critically important habitat for salmon, invertebrates and other marine life. Juvenile salmon and many small marine organisms rely on eelgrass beds as places to hide from predators. Pacific Herring lay their eggs directly on the plant's leaves. Herring, in turn, are one of three Puget Sound forage fish that are staples of the salmon's diet.
For more than a decade, we have engaged private contractors and WSU Beach Watchers to gather data on the distribution and health of eelgrass beds along our county's nearshore.
In 2007 we began our most ambitious eelgrass project to date. We partnered with WSU Beach Watchers to equip a highly-skilled, volunteer team to gather eelgrass data from a private boat and a light circraft, while simultaneously conducting boots-in-the-muck studies. This multi-year project is the most sophisticated and comprehensive eelgrass survey ever attempted in Island County. The Beach Watchers are collaborating with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and are following the agency's scientific procols while also working with top eelgrass experts at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories.
The main study is being conducted from a small boat owned and operated by Ken Urstad, an MRC member who is also a Beach Watcher. It is equipped with portable videography and data-collection gear including a towfish laser camera, trolling motor, computer and GIS navigation. Neal Clark, a Beach Watcher with extensive technical experience, operates the equipment. The survey team records underwater video of all the eelgrass growing along DNR-specified transects that run at right angles to the shoreline. Members of the team then review the video to document the presence or absence of eelgrass habitat along the entire length of each transect.
For a broader view, Gregg Ridder, another member of the Beach Watcher team overflies the county shoreline in a private aircraft equipped with a wing-mounted camera. He does this on summer, low-tide days. All images are stamped with GIS coordinates and stitched into a continuous record that gives a big-picture view of eelgrass and other intertidal vegetation over a large area.
Other team members led by marine biologist, Jan Holmes, visit specific sites at low tide to count eelgrass leaves, conduct plant density studies, measure temperature and gather vegetation samples for laboratory examination.
Earlier Eelgrass Studies
The current eelgrass studies build on work conducted a decade ago by Island County MRC. In June of 2000 the MRC secured a grant from the Northwest Straits Commission (NWSC) for a two-part project to locate and map eelgrass beds on our shoreline.
Part 1, Property-Owner Survey
Part 1 incorporated both data-collection and outreach. Working with WSU Beach Watchers we asked shoreline property owners to go to their beaches to look for eelgrass beds and help us map its distribution. This was, in part, to educate property owners about the value and significance of eelgrass habitat. We mailed an informative questionnaire to 4,500 shoreline property owners. An astonishing 13 percent participated, engaging some 1,000 people. Of these, 392 found eelgrass on their beaches, adding greatly to our knowledge of the geographic distribution of this important plant along our shoreline.
• Full report with maps
• Map of property parcel numbers where eelgrass located
• Map of all locations of survey respondents
Part 2, Underwater Videography
Part 2 of our eelgrass project involved underwater videography. The MRC engaged Marine Resources Consultants of Port Townsend to video-map eelgrass beds in five priority areas of the county -- Utsalady Bay, Penn Cove, Oak harbor, Holmes Harbor and the Maxwelton Creek Outfall. Video maps were produced and locations were recorded with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.
• View maps of eelgrass beds at five locations
• Utsalady, Camano Island
• Skagit Bay South (north Camano area)
• Oak Harbor Bay
• Penn Cove - Coupeville
• Holmes Harbor - Freeland
• Maxwelton Creek Shoreline