Coastal habitats mangroves, sea grasses and estuaries can capture and store carbon, and are a key natural climate solution. In Washington, our estuaries hold great promise.
Some news from the bottom of Puget Sound: The total area of eelgrass beds hasn't changed much in the past 40 years. When other habitat areas have declined, this is encouraging — especially considering the number of aquatic species that use eelgrass beds, from young salmon to crabs. Eelgrass beds are common in tidal zones and along shorelines.
“Eelgrass meadows can grow so thick that when you’re swimming through them, you can’t see anything else,” said co-author Tessa Francis, of the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, in an interview with The Seattle Times. Watch the video for a diver's-eye view of eelgrass beds off the south coast of Whidbey Island. (Video courtesy of Ole Shelton, NOAA).
The report, co-authored by our lead scientist Phil Levin, was published in the Journal of Ecology. Another promising find was that significant changes in eelgrass beds occurred on a very small scale — meaning local action may likely lead to positive results.
"Our human population has exploded, we have all kinds of increasing impacts on Puget Sound, and yet eelgrass is resilient," said Phil. "It gives us hope about the ability to restore eelgrass. It tells us that what we do at the neighborhood scale matters, and we can have a positive impact."
Phil added that one of the largest increases in eelgrass is near our Port Susan Bay Estuary Restoration Project. The Stillaguamish River spills into the bay, mixing freshwater and saltwater to create extensive estuarine marshes that produce a vast quantity of decaying organic matter, helping the offshore habitat.
The data that have been collected and used in this analysis are incomplete and several of the findings beg further research — such as how adjacent areas have very different trends and nearby population density doesn't seem to have a strong correlation with negative impacts on eelgrass beds.
Written & Photographed by Kat Morgan, Puget Sound Community Partnerships Manager
On a chilly morning in the North Sound, 20 semi-sleep deprived undergraduates from across the country (there were some fireworks and late nights at their campsite the previous night) stood in our Mount Vernon office parking lot learning about who The Nature Conservancy is, and our work in Washington, particularly Puget Sound. These were the 2016 cohort of Doris Duke Conservation Scholars, a program sponsored by the University of Washington. This two year program is designed to help foster and ultimately increase diversity in the conservation workforce. These were the first-year students – freshmen and sophomores - participating in this 8-week field program in Washington. They visited conservation projects and professionals around Puget Sound, learned about current conservation needs and issues, and about the people doing this work. We toured our Mount Vernon office to give them a sense of what it might be like to work for The Nature Conservancy, and then headed to one of our flagship project sites – Port Susan Bay. Most students knew the Conservancy purchased and conserved lands. Only one knew that we actively managed those lands, or that we supported and implemented large-scale, landscape changing projects beyond our own ownership.
After hearing about the needs for restoring floodplain systems across Puget Sound, they had lots of questions about how you work with communities to do this work. What kinds of outreach were required, and how did you go about it? We talked about how each community has different needs, and you approach each community differently depending on the circumstances and people involved. They nodded their heads when we talked about the similarities – in each community, you ask questions and listen. You listen a lot - to understand what is needed, what is important to the people who live in that place, and you work together to find space for all those needs in a project.
We toured the Port Susan Bay restoration project site at low tide, when all the restored tidal channels and estuarine marsh were visible and visited the flood return structure, installed to address local flood issues as part of the project. Migrating shorebirds moved around the shallow pools left by the tide. The students marveled at the remoteness of the site, even though houses are visible all around, and the subtle energy, where at a distance everything appears very still, but when you get closer, you see song and shore birds flitting round the marsh, rushes moving in the breeze, and raptors on the wing looking for lunch.
As we wrapped up the tour, we turned the tables and I asked questions of this group of future conservation professionals. Jared Rivera is one of the Doris Duke scholars. He studies environmental engineering at UCLA. As a Native American, Jared is very interested in the intersection of social justice and conservation, in making sure Native American communities are engaged in problem-solving and decision-making around natural resources. Jared appreciates the interdisciplinary teams the Conservancy puts together to tackle conservation problems, and one day, when he finishes his environmental engineering degree, is interested in a seat at the table.
Name: Jared Rivera
Hometown: Murrieta, Southern California. Going to college at UCLA.
Murrieta is located in the center of the Los Angeles San Diego mega region of 20 Million people. After interstate 15 was built in the 1980’s, suburban developments started being constructed. Today, Murrieta is known as a commuter town and the largest employer is the school. I know this area though. I have family on Camano Island. It’s really interesting to hear about your projects here.
Childhood Dream/what did you want to be when you grow up?:
Until I was 17, I wanted to join the Marines. Then my ideas changed. I had an AP bio teacher who taught us about ecology and took us on field trips to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. I was fascinated by a project they were working on of sustainable algae fields for biomass production. I applied for a student study program at the Wrigley Institute and was accepted.
What about our work do you find most inspiring? What is most surprising?
The Levees at the Port Susan Project. The fact your conservation organization isn’t afraid to make changes to the environment, and to build infrastructure if it will help you accomplish your goals. Humans have already meddled with nature to mess it up. The only way to fix it is to keep meddling.
What would you most like to see The Nature Conservancy work on that you didn’t hear about today?
I would like to see The Nature Conservancy become more involved in social justice issues. Particularly as a Native American, I would like to see more indigenous communities included in the problem-solving and decisions around our natural resources.
What would make you want to work for us?
I am really excited about the interdisciplinary approach you described bringing experts from all different fields together to problem-solve, to have a seat at the table, particularly involving social justice issues.
Written Joelene Boyd, Puget Sound Stewardship Coordinator
Photographed by Julie Morse, Senior Ecologist & Skagit Audubon Group
Thanks to dedicated volunteers we now have new residents at Port Susan Bay – Purple Martins. We are really excited by this because it is the first time (at least in recent history) that Purple Martins have been seen at Port Susan Bay (PSB) and it’s all thanks to volunteers.
In mid-February volunteers came out and installed bird houses then later in May another group of volunteers from the Skagit Audubon installed some more.
I asked Mark Perry, of Skagit Audubon, some questions about Purple Martins and this project.
Why it is important to install purple martin boxes?
Purple Martins while not endangered suffer from habitat loss along the West Coast. They are "cavity nesters"...building nests in holes. Free standing Snags along bodies of water are perfect sites. On the East Coast humans have provided nesting sites since the early colonial days and the birds have adapted, accept living in close proximity and thrive. Along the West Coast the practice of providing replacement man made housing has not been as prevalent.
Is there a specific conservation target or goal in mind?
Our conservation target is simply to expand the number of nesting sites and thereby hoping to attract more nesting pairs. Our friends to the north in British Columbia have a very successful and extensive effort. Their program has grown from just a few boxes, sites and less than 100 birds to more than 50 sites, over a thousand nesting boxes and a survey population of 4500+ birds.
Why Port Susan Bay?
In Skagit, county there are only two identified Martin nesting sites. PSB offers almost perfect natural habit...wide open marsh land near body of water but lacks tree snags. Nesting boxes were removed when the dikes were removed/relocated. By utilizing the existing left over pilings and providing 3 additional nesting poles (like a snag) we hope to attract a new population of nesting pairs and reestablish a thriving colony. Martin's eat flying insects and are very social curious birds!
Why is the Skagit Audubon focusing efforts around the region to install these boxes?
Like most volunteer projects it takes a few interested and passionate folks to see a need, figure out ways to address the need and take action. Skagit Audubon has over 200 families as members, is focused on local conservation efforts and fortunately have some handy folks willing to get involved. Please check out our website www.skagitaudubon.org for more information about our chapter.
Where else can folks see these boxes?
36 boxes are up and a thriving colony exists at Ship Harbor near the Anacortes Ferry terminal. The site is easily viewed from the Ship Harbor interpretive trail.
11 boxes are up just north of the Padilla Bay interpretative center in Bayview.
9 boxes are up in English Boom.
We hope to add 30 more boxes by next season at Wiley Slough and yet to be determined sites.
Are they just birdhouses or do they have special dimensions that make purple martin houses?
A Martin Birdhouse is a bit unique. First the orientation is more horizontal than vertical. The entrance hole must be large enough for Martins but not too large to allow starlings or house sparrows to hijack the box. The box needs to be 12-15' off the ground. And since Martin's are colony nesters you need 5-7 boxes to attract them.
If someone wanted to help out in purple martin efforts what should they do/who should they contact?
If someone is just a bit handy and would like to build boxes I can share some simple plans via email. Please see the chapter President email found on the Skagit Audubon’s website skagitaudubon.org.
If folks notice Martin's already nesting at a "natural" site please let Skagit Audubon know. Or if you think there is a potential site where we could easily access and add nesting boxes that's good info too. (Using same skagitaudubon.org email).
If you would like to join our citizen science monitoring team please contact Skagit Audubon. And of course we welcome anyone who would like to join Skagit Audubon and become active members!
Thank you Mark and all of the volunteers who helped on this project!
Written by Beth Geiger, Northwest Writer
Graphics by Erica Simek-Sloniker, Visual Communications
A dramatic change has taken place in a marsh in Port Susan Bay, near Stanwood, Washington. In just three years the total length of tidal channels naturally increased tenfold, from 2,300 to 23,000 meters.
Tidal channels are key to a well-functioning estuarine ecosystem. Channels increase habitat diversity, which in turn increases species diversity. Juvenile salmon use the channels, dabbling ducks use them, and invertebrates that provide food for other species use them.
Scientists like Roger Fuller, an ecosystems ecologist at Western Washington University, are chronicling the new tidal channels, along with other changes here. Fuller says the development of so many new channels is “a big surprise.”
The new channels started forming in 2012, after The Nature Conservancy removed 7,000 feet of dike that had separated the 150-acre marsh from the rest of Port Susan Bay since the 1950s. The dike removed had over time diverted Hatt Slough, the Stillaguamish River’s biggest distributary channel, south where it spills into Port Susan Bay. That dike had also cut the marsh off from its main source of fresh water and sediment.
With marsh, river, and Puget Sound connected again, natural processes took over. Critical estuary habitat quickly began to be rebuilt. A natural revival was underway.
The channels are a big part of this revival. “Channels build connections, creating the intimate links that tie the marsh, tide and river together,” Fuller explains. “They serve as the trade routes of the estuary, funneling water, sediment, fish, and the organic matter that fuels the entire estuarine food web back and forth between marsh and tidal flat.”
Supported by the Conservancy, Fuller and other scientists including Greg Hood with the Skagit River System Cooperative, and Eric Grossman, Christopher A. Curran and Isa Woo from the United States Geological Survey have been studying the channels and other ways that this estuary is recovering.
The researchers analyze before and after data, and compare the restoration area to a nearby reference marsh which has never been diked. They measure suspended sediment, water temperature, salinity, current, as well as topographic and ecological changes.
New tidal channels aren’t the only “before and after” they’ve seen. When the dikes were in place, the area inside them had been starved of its natural influx of sediment from the Stillaguamish River. The estuary had subsided until it was a meter lower than the surrounding tidelands in some places. It functioned more like a pond than a dynamic estuary. For example, there was no access or protected estuarine habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon transitioning from the Stillaguamish River into Puget Sound.
With the dike removed scientists have recorded a measurable rise in the height of the marsh. During those years the sediment delivered to PSB was unusually high in part due to the March 2014 Oso landslide. However, the data suggest that even if the marsh gets half as much sediment in future years, it may still rise fast enough to keep up with the rising sea level, estimated to be an average of about 24 inches by 2100.
Lessons from Nature
Fuller says that being surprised by nature here isn’t all that unexpected. “The one thing I knew before the restoration was that I would be surprised by the changes triggered by the restoration,” he says. “There's been so little research on restoration in northwest estuaries that I knew it would be really interesting to watch it unfold.”
The restoration project is part of the Port Susan Bay Preserve, which includes 4,122 acres of estuary that the Conservancy acquired in 2001. The science being conducted here reaches much further than the Preserve itself. Along with learning new lessons, we are applying scientific concepts and models honed under this and other Conservancy projects such as Fisher Slough.
Together, these projects demonstrate that carefully planned restoration can have complementary, not conflicting, benefits for people, salmon, farms, and wildlife. The Conservancy-led Floodplains by Design provides the partnerships and funding that ensure these lessons can extend to restoration projects all over Puget Sound.
As a result of diligent science and critical partnerships like this, we are learning how to make Puget Sound more resilient as climate changes, and sea level rises.
Video courtesy of Eleanor Beaton, Volunteer Videographer
Recently, 14 volunteers put the bird boxes and hollowed gourds up on wooden pilings around the Port Susan Bay Preserve. Teams of three or four spread out over the slick mud, wet grass and scattered driftwood. With few places at the site for songbirds to nest, the bird boxes could make a big difference. See how volunteers didn't let the rain stop them from making a difference in the video above!
Video by Joelene Boyd, Puget Sound Stewardship Coordinator /Interim Stewardship Director
A timelapse camera was set up at our Port Susan Bay Preserve in an attempt to capture the King Tides. We ended up getting so much more, see what our cameras captured in the video above!
Photographed by Leah Kintner, Puget Sound Partnership
Recently, we went out with the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board for an informative day to tour restoration successes throughout north Puget Sound.
The group joined Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Jenna Friebel and Belinda Rotton, Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen and Skagit Watershed Council's Richard Brocksmith to tour WDFW's Fir Island Farm estuary restoration project. We then headed to the Stillaguamish Dept of Natural Resources office for an overview of the Stillaguamish watershed by Jason Griffith (Stillaguamish Tribe) and Kit Crump (Stillaguamish Lead Entity). Afterwards, the group toured Port Susan Bay (with our Jenny Baker and Kat Morgan) and went to the Tulalip Hibulb Cultural Center for an overview of the Snohomish watershed presented by the Morgan Ruff and Kurt Nelson (Tulalip Tribe). At the end of it all we toured the recently completed Qwuloolt estuary restoration project with the Tulalip Tribe’s Morgan Ruff and Josh Meidav. It was a beautiful day touring 680 acres of estuary either restored or with restoration underway!
See photos from the day in the slideshow above.
Engaging visitors of all ages in our efforts to restore Puget Sound
Written by Laura Lea Rubino, Marketing Intern
Photographed by Katherine Cairns (1-4), Photography Volunteer and Laura Lea Rubino (5-10), Marketing Intern
More than 100 people attended this year’s Port Susan Bay Day at our local estuarine preserve. This annual family-friendly event offered visitors a rare opportunity to explore the unique landscape and learn how restoration returned the estuary to historical conditions.
With a Port Susan Bay passport in hand, visitors stopped at science stations along the dike to learn about topics from invasive species to climate change. Visitors collected a stamp in their passport at each station to choose a prize at the end of their self-guided tour. Many took advantage of the warm beautiful day to wander along the dike and watch the tide come in. Others retreated to the shade for face painting and an ice cream sandwich. We enjoyed meeting new people and sharing our work with the local community—thank you to everyone who came out for Port Susan Bay Day!
See the slideshow above!
SCA + PORT SUSAN BAY
This past month we partnered with the SCA (Student Conservation Association) to have a crew work for two weeks on a few places where we work, mainly on the Upper Skagit and at our Port Susan Bay Preserve!
Crews spent time working in the Upper Skagit doing manual weed control of Scotch Broom, holly, clematis and some other weeds as well as removing an old building! At Port Susan Bay crews spent most of their time looking for Spartina.
This is the first time we’ve ever partnered together for nature and we loved having them work with us to keep Puget Sound healthy and clean.