It was a cool mostly cloudy 4th of July morning when Pete Haase, Tom Flanagan, and I met at the March Point Park and Ride. Pete and I are members of the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve (FBAR) Citizen Stewardship Committee (CSC) and Tom is a super volunteer/citizen scientist. We were headed to Libbey Beach Park, a small Island County park just north of Fort Ebey State Park on the western shores of Whidbey Island. It is part of the Smith and Minor Island Aquatic Reserve (SMIAR), an area that spans 36,300 acres of tidelands and seafloor habitat and includes the largest bull kelp forest in the State of Washington.
Today we were doing what any red blooded old white guys do on the Fourth of July, we were going to help a couple of young ladies, Jamie Kilgo and Cassidy Johnson from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with a kelp harvesting study. Pretty much what everybody does on the 4th of July, right? The goal of their study is to gather information about harvester practices and evaluate potential impacts of harvesting on the intertidal kelp community. Kelp is a broad term used to describe a group of brown macroalgae species common to our Salish Sea rocky shores, including the iconic bull kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana). Kelp forests, as they are known, are extensive underwater (most of the time) “factories” that convert solar energy into food and protective structure for many of its inhabitants, like invertebrates and fish, including juvenile salmonids. They are vital to a healthy intertidal and subtidal ecosystem.
Although Tom and I are experienced citizen scientists, neither of us had experience with these types of studies. We are both former engineers so almost impossible to train! Pete was an “old hand” having been out on the beach with Dale Fournier, FBARCSC member, and Jamie a few weeks earlier. By some miracle, Jamie and Cassidy were able to quickly teach us (the tide would soon be coming back in!) how to identify, measure, and record data on these amazing macroalgae in a very short time. Proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Although we were noting and recording the presence of several types of kelp, our focus was on Alaria marginata (winged kelp) and Saccharina spp. (sugar and split leaf kelp). These species are the preferred targets for the recreational harvesters.
One of the things that makes the beaches along the west side of Whidbey perfect for supporting large kelp beds but extremely difficult to walk (better to crawl!) are the large boulders that litter the beach. Kelp attaches and anchors itself to the rocks so as not to be swept away by winter storms or strong tides. Once anchored solidly to the sea floor, the kelp forests absorb significant amounts of wave energy thereby slowing beach erosion.
These studies actually started back in 2015 when members of SMIAR and other local environmental groups began observing and recording spatial and temporal harvester patterns, measuring the wet weight of harvester buckets, and conducting harvester interviews at Libbey Beach. Since 2017, the DNR led by Jamie Kilgo and her team, has been conducting a harvest method impact study.
One of the outgrowths of the work by volunteers and DNR is a harvester outreach and education program. Interpretative signs were developed and installed a few years ago. Harvesters are provided information on the best method to harvest kelp so that it can survive and re-grow. It turns out the methods used to harvest kelp are critical to sustainability. If the stem is cut too close (generally less than 12”) to the holdfast, it is not able to regenerate and/or reproduce. Not a good thing if we want sustainable kelp forests!
As we finished up and headed home for a “normal” 4th celebration, it reminded me that the actions taken by a small group of engaged local citizens can make a big difference toward protecting our rich marine environment.