Keywords: Marine habitat, Nearshore habitat, Aquatic reserves, Monitoring

Eight aquatic reserves in Puget Sound are being studied by volunteers working under the direction of state experts. Washington Department of Natural Resources manages the reserves with guidance from nearby communities.

On a recent outing along the eastern shore of Fidalgo Bay, Bob Weathers reached down and started scooping up sand with a red plastic goblet that he and his companions had scavenged from the beach years ago.

When his bucket was a quarter full, Weathers moved on to the next sampling station. Leading the way was Scott Petersen, who was using GPS on his cellphone to pinpoint the right spot. Taking notes was Shirley Hoh, who observed the natural and man-made conditions at each site.

The three, all retired from various careers, are part of a larger contingent of volunteer “citizen scientists” who have been measuring the health of Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve near Anacortes. On this day, they were sampling the beach for tiny eggs laid by surf smelt, a small fish that plays a central role in the Puget Sound food web.

“It is possible to find surf smelt eggs here all year round,” said Hoh, who retired from the National Park Service in 2015. “We get pretty excited when we find them in the wintertime, because it doesn’t happen all that frequently.”

Recognizing the unique natural qualities of Fidalgo Bay, the Washington Department of Natural Resources created the 781-acre aquatic reserve in 2008. It is one of eight aquatic reserves created since 2004, when the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve near Tacoma became the first.

A volunteer scoops sand mixed with surf smelt eggs into a bucket at a sampling site on Fidalgo Bay. Photo: Pete Haase

To help scientists study forage fish in the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve, volunteer Shirley Hoh collects a sample of sand mixed with tiny surf smelt eggs and notes the location. Photo: Pete Haase

Playing a big role

The Aquatic Reserves Program was established as a way of identifying and protecting important habitats on state-owned shorelines, tidelands and submerged bedlands.

“We can’t do it by ourselves,” said Birdie Davenport, aquatic reserves manager for DNR. “Each reserve has this whole community of stakeholders and volunteers and partners who help support each site, and that’s the strength of the program.”

An 82-page “Guidance” document spells out criteria for creating and managing the reserves, but DNR officials lean heavily on area residents to help study the ecological interactions and participate in managing each of the reserves.

“We can’t do it by ourselves,” said Birdie Davenport, aquatic reserves manager for DNR. “Each reserve has this whole community of stakeholders and volunteers and partners who help support each site, and that’s the strength of the program.”

Members of the Fidalgo Bay Citizen Stewardship Committee, for example, have conducted scientific research, educational programs and community events, while keeping an eye out for human activities that could disrupt the ecosystem, according to Pete Haase, former chairman and member of the committee.

Specific research projects vary among the reserves. Volunteer efforts at Fidalgo Bay include studies of forage fish (including surf smelt spawning) and surveys for marine birds, clams, eelgrass and marsh habitats.

“We have made a lot of connections with the community,” Haase said. “Our educational efforts get people out. We give talks and get people involved. We all benefit from the learning experience.”

He said it is especially rewarding to teach young people about the ecosystem and to make everyone aware of the studies taking place in the area. On occasion, adult volunteers will take groups of students out to the beach to gather sand and look at surf-smelt eggs under a microscope.

Surf smelt embryos under a microscope. Photo: Jamey Selleck

Surf smelt embryos under a microscope. Photo: Jamey Selleck

Volunteers at Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve wash samples of sand containing surf smelt eggs through a series of screens. Photo: Pete Haase

Volunteers Dale Fournier and Chris Brown wash the samples of sand containing surf smelt eggs through a series of screens, leaving the eggs among fine grains of sand that remain. Photo: Pete Haase

Gathering the eggs

Back on the east side of the bay, Weathers gathered his last sample of sand, using the emblematic red goblet, converted from a drinking vessel to a tool of science. With four samples in the bucket, the three volunteer researchers headed over to the Fidalgo Bay Resort Convention Center to process that sample and those collected by others.

Weathers, a former university professor and scuba diving instructor, was retired a short time in 2012 when he joined forces with Petersen and Haase in the surf smelt project. Dan Penttila, longtime forage fish biologist, organized the effort and established easy-to-follow protocols following his retirement from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To count the eggs found in each section of beach, the sand is sifted through a series of three screens, each smaller than the one before. In the final step, the remaining fine sand is put through a gold-mining apparatus that uses swirling water to wash the eggs out of the heavier sand.

A volunteer scoops up sand mixed with surf smelt eggs at a sampling site on Fidalgo Bay. Photo: Pete Haase

AmeriCorps member Lilya Jaeren and volunteers Dale Fournier and Chris Brown use a gold mining device with a jet of swirling water that separates surf smelt eggs from the heavier fine sand. Photo: Pete Haase

Up to 100 eggs are counted and classified into their embryonic stage of development. Beyond 100, the sample gets the notation “too numerous to count.” Data from Fidalgo Bay and similar projects are collected by state scientists and reported in a special data viewer. Random samples are double-checked by professional scientists to assure accuracy.

The stewardship committees at the various aquatic reserves receive valuable staff support from PugetSound Corps, a program affiliated with Washington Conservation Corps that employs young adults and military veterans in a variety of environmental projects. They provide “boots on the ground” for both research and educational projects.

Most reserves are affiliated with a nonprofit organization, which can help support the stewardship committees in a variety of ways, including help in acquiring grants for specific projects. In Fidalgo Bay, the key sponsor is the environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, based in Bellingham.

Members of the stewardship committees from various reserves get together about twice a year to update each other on progress and share ideas, Haase said.

“We all have different ideas, and we have taken projects from one reserve to another,” he said. “It’s good to have the backing of a foundation that can buy microscopes, batteries and equipment, and support from the DNR is huge and can really make things happen. Kudos to those folks from my perspective.”


Location of eight aquatic reserves in Washington. Map: WA DNR

Eight aquatic reserves, managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, have been established to protect important ecosystems on state aquatic lands.

In most reserves, area residents work with state, local and tribal officials and nonprofit groups to develop and carry out management plans, including scientific research.

The aquatic reserves in the order they were established include: 

  • Maury Island 2004
  • Cypress Island  2007
  • Fidalgo Bay 2008
  • Cherry Point 2010
  • Protection Island 2010
  • Smith and Minor Islands 2010
  • Nisqually Reach 2011
  • Lake Kapowsin 2016

About the author: Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.