Volunteers track beach health at Boulevard Park in second year of study

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 19, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Eleanor Hines and Wendy Courtemanche crouch on part of the restored beach exposed by low tide at Boulevard Park and study the life on the rocks near their knees Sunday, June 15.

"We have a mix of barnacles in here," said Hines, a member of the Northwest Straits Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, as she looked through a grid used to help survey intertidal life.

Bright-green sea lettuce are draped on rocks near where Bellingham Bay's water laps at the shore. The pair also sees and identifies a shore crab before moving on to limpets.

Nearby, intertidal zone expert Bob Lemon peers through a hand lens at what looks like a rust-colored seaweed before telling volunteer Jennie Tuckerman it is filamentous red algae, which she writes down on a sheet of paper. A few moments earlier, he had found another reddish-looking plant life that he identified as ceramium sp., also an algae.

The Bellingham residents were among the trained volunteers who took part in a monitoring project, now in its second year, on two stretches of beach at one of the city's most popular parks Saturday, June 14, and Sunday.

The goal of last weekend's survey - conducted on exposed shoreline on both sides of The Woods Coffee - was to see what intertidal species were there, how many, and how they were affected by the city of Bellingham's restoration of one of the beaches.

That restoration was completed last fall.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for us to see how that restoration affects the biology of the intertidal area," said Wendy Steffensen, North Sound Baykeeper for RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. "This is like a laboratory right in the center of Bellingham. It's very exciting, for ordinary people, to be able to see how science is happening right in their town."

The survey is being done in conjunction with Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee, which will receive the data gathered by the citizen scientists, along with the city of Bellingham.

On Sunday, the volunteers were at the beach north of the coffee shop, called West Beach. That was where the city of Bellingham removed concrete riprap and restored the beach to a natural shoreline with coarse sand, large rocks, cobbles and beach gravel in order to reduce erosion, make getting to the beach and water easier, and to improve near-shore habitat.

The day before, volunteers were on beachfront south of Woods Coffee, just on the other side, 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 compare the health of both beaches.

Restoring West Beach should be good for the plants and creatures living there, and the data being collected will help determine if that's the case.

"This monitoring is essential to determine if the park's beaches are changing, and the extent of those changes," said Austin Rose, coordinator for the Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee.

Shoreline slope also was measured to track erosion or wave energy over time.

The results will be written up in a report that will be posted on the Marine Resources Committee's website, mrc.whatcomcounty.org.

A preliminary look showed not much difference between the two beaches, except for the upper tideline.

"From a cursory view, much of it looks comparable, except for the restored beach at elevations of plus 6 and plus 4 (tide)," Steffensen said. "Here, there is very little life, which is to be expected because the cobbles were newly placed and cobbles may not support the same life as the previous substrate."

Cobble habitats are relatively unstable because they're often overturned by waves, according to the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

"Last year, there was a much higher prevalence of algae and barnacles in this location," Steffensen said. "Cobble habitat, coupled with the wave energy present, may not support the same number and types of algae and animals that previously occurred."

So next year's survey could provide more information about whether species recolonize the area next year.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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