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Citizen scientists take to Salish Sea to help monitor its health

Students at Shannon Point Marine Center get ready to deploy a CTD to measure water quality in this undated photo.
Students at Shannon Point Marine Center get ready to deploy a CTD to measure water quality in this undated photo. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

As waves rocked the boat, a group of citizen scientists watched lines take shape on a computer screen.

The blue, red and black lines represented temperature, salinity and depth, which were measured by a device called a CTD as it was lowered into the water from the back of the boat.

The group aboard Western Washington University’s research vessel Magister on Aug. 1 was getting a look at how scientists gather data used to study the marine environment.

The day trip was an extended education opportunity the university is offering at its Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes.

Staff from the center took the group of six to one of several sites they visit each month where they use the CTD device to collect data and water samples as part of a state Department of Ecology program for monitoring the health of the Salish Sea.

The Salish Sea includes the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound – the marine waters tucked away from the open ocean between northwest Washington and southwest B.C.

The recent trip was the first time center staff had extra hands on deck to help collect water samples, which are examined in a lab to check the amount of oxygen, microscopic life and nutrients in the water.

Shannon Point Marine Center Education Coordinator Allison Paul, who developed the citizen science program for this summer, said she was interested in offering an adult program and expanding opportunities for the public to interact with university scientists.

“We decided to go ahead and kind of combine some work we have been doing … to have citizen scientists join us on that trip and help with that testing,” she said.

I’ve been curious for a long time about what this water quality sampling entails, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to see and get a nice ride on the water.

Earl Cilley, 82, of Bellingham

For father and son Earl and Pete Cilley of Bellingham, the boat trip was an opportunity to learn about how oceanographic data is collected.

“I’ve been curious for a long time about what this water quality sampling entails, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to see and get a nice ride on the water,” 82-year-old Earl Cilley said.

Shannon Point Marine Center Capt. Nathan Schwarck took the Magister into the Strait of Georgia north of the San Juan Islands. It’s an area influenced by the Fraser River flowing out of British Columbia.

“This I think is our most interesting site because there is the obvious influence of the Fraser River,” Jay Dimond, a marine technologist at the center, said while lowering the CTD device into the water.

Due to freshwater flowing into the Salish Sea from the Fraser River, there is a distinct top layer of warmer, fresher water. That layer was about 7 meters deep on Aug. 1. The water got colder and saltier the deeper the CTD went.

The temperature dropped from about 63 degrees at the surface to about 49 degrees at the bottom, 163 meters below.

In addition to the lines plotting temperature, salinity and depth, a fourth green line showed the amount of chlorophyll, or the living material associated with algae and plants that form the base of the food chain.

The top 3 meters of water had the most chlorophyll, and the amount dropped as the CTD descended. Dimond said that’s primarily because algae and plants need sunlight to grow, and sunlight is strongest at the water’s surface.

From the boat, Dimond used the CTD to collect water from various depths, ranging from the surface to 158 meters deep.

When the device was back on board, Kathleen O'Grady of Anacortes put some water collected by the device into bottles so the chlorophyll in the water at various depths could be examined in the lab.

“I’ve seen this boat go out and have always wondered what it was and thought it must be some kind of research,” she said. “When I saw this opportunity open up, I was thrilled and jumped on it.”

Meanwhile, citizen scientists squeezed water samples from syringes into plastic bottles, filtering out tiny marine creatures called phytoplankton and zooplankton in order to look at the nutrients in the water back in the lab.

It’s like when you go to your doctor and get your vital signs, we’re checking the conditions of the water.

Julia Bos , oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology

The data the citizen scientists helped collect is used to look at the health of the marine waters in the area.

“It’s like when you go to your doctor and get your vital signs, we’re checking the conditions of the water,” Ecology oceanographer Julia Bos said.

The Strait of Georgia location the group visited is the northernmost of 37 sites Ecology has monitored since 1999 and one of eight sites Shannon Point Marine Center manages for Ecology.

Brady Olson, who teaches marine sciences at the university and is studying how changing temperature and acidity in the water affects plankton, said monitoring the water throughout the Salish Sea long-term is important so scientists can spot changes that may indicate problems due to pollution, ocean acidification or climate change.

He said the Salish Sea is a nutrient-rich and interesting area because deep ocean water rises when it reaches the region, after it has warmed up along what oceanographers call the global conveyor belt that moves ocean water around the world.

“I call our region the end of the sewer line because we’re getting all of the junk washed up that’s been floating along the bottom of the ocean for hundreds or thousands of years,” Olson said.

That material provides food for small organisms that support larger species such as salmon and orca whales.

“These physical, chemical interactions have a big influence on the life in the Salish Sea,” Olson said.

Bos said Ecology’s long-term marine monitoring program has revealed changes, including that nitrogen is getting into the Salish Sea from human sources and that warmer ocean waters, particularly in 2015, can affect marine life in the area.

Without the baseline data the state has been collecting for years – and data recently contributed by the citizen scientist group – it would be difficult to spot the types of changes that could suggest the marine environment is in trouble.

“It’s kind of like your own medical record. You know what your heart rate is and your blood pressure over time, so if something changes you know there may be an issue … this is very much the same thing,” Bos said.

The university is offering a second day trip aboard the Magister on Sept. 6. Fees are $125. More information is available at Western’s Extended Education website, https://ee.wwu.edu/.

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