Surveys underway to track plants, animals at Whatcom County shorelines

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 29, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - On a stretch of beach at Boulevard Park exposed by low tide, Bob Lemon uses forceps to gingerly pick at a piece of bright greenery draped over a rock while Bellingham Bay waves lap against the shore.

The intertidal zone expert studies the sea lettuce for a bit before turning his attention to barnacles that April Markiewicz and Gaythia Weis are trying to identify.

The three Bellingham residents were among the trained volunteers who surveyed intertidal life on two stretches of beach at one of the city's most popular parks June 22 and 23.

The goal of last weekend's survey - conducted on both sides of The Woods Coffee under the curious eyes of onlookers - was to see what intertidal species were there, and how many, before the city of Bellingham removes concrete riprap in a section of beach and restores it to a natural shoreline of sand and gravel.

"We wanted to know what is the change of the community in that place," said Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist with the North Sound Baykeeper Team. "We wanted like a before-and-after snapshot. And we wanted to see what the impact of making a soft shore is."

Steffensen also is chair of the Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee, which led the Boulevard Park survey.

The city is restoring the beach north of The Woods Coffee, called West Beach. Volunteers surveyed that section Sunday.

Where the volunteers were Saturday was south of Woods, just on the other side and called Pete's Beach. That shoreline could have the concrete rubble removed in the future but, until then, it is expected to serve as a reference point for ongoing summer surveys, provided funding can be found, to track beach health.

Restoring West Beach - the work that is closing off a section of Boulevard Park and is expected to be done by October - should be good for the plants and creatures living there.

"We're assuming it's going to be positive and we'll see a lot more critters next year," Steffensen said, noting the survey will provide scientific data, instead of just anecdotal information, be the news good or bad.

Boulevard Park survey results will be shared with the city, which, over time, will look for signs of improvement, such as shell fragments.

That's a good indicator that sea life that likes that intertidal zone is showing up, according to Gina Gobo Austin, project engineer with the city Parks and Recreation Department.

"It can be an assessment tool," Steffensen said.

The intertidal zone survey at Boulevard Park isn't the only one occurring this summer to monitor changes in species diversity and beach health.

Several groups, including Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee, RE Sources and two citizen stewardship committees, are involved in an effort for Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay aquatic reserves. Upcoming surveys are planned for those reserves.

The survey at Cherry Point will be part of an ongoing effort and will add to the historic baseline of data. Access to those sites has been approved by Intalco and Phillips 66, which own or lease land in the survey areas.

"Good science serves us all. We're all working from the same playbook. We're all getting the same information. And we can all talk about it," Steffensen said. "Some of this information is already being gathered by the industries."

Information gathered by the volunteer citizen scientists who have received training - about 40 in Whatcom County - also will be shared with the state Department of Natural Resources.

As for those volunteers: "It's a tremendous amount of fun for people to just get out there and see what's living on the beach," Steffensen said.

Back at Boulevard Park, beach naturalist Lemon confers with Markiewicz and Weis. They decide that the barnacle species they're attempting to identify is the thatched variety - ones that don't yet have the formation that makes them look like a little pile of straw, which gives the barnacles their name, but are starting to show the "break line" on their top.

As Lemon moves off to confer with other volunteers - "Yeah, I think that's Turkish washcloth," he said of a dark seaweed - Weis and Markiewicz resume their survey of the rock and that patch of beach.

"There's one mussel here that's alive and well," said Markiewicz, who also is a member of Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee.

The pair also finds a tiny purple shore crab hiding under the rock they're examining.

"I did see something squirting," Markiewicz said as they and the other volunteers continued their survey.

SURVEYS INFO

Upcoming surveys of intertidal zones are:

-- Friday, July 19, at Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve near Alcoa Intalco Works.

-- Saturday, July 20, at Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve in Anacortes.

-- Sunday, July 21, at Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, Neptune Beach.

To find out more about the surveys or to register, call RE Sources at 360-733-8307.

Reach KIE RELYEA at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2234.

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