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Here’s what scientists say about the challenges in protecting the Salish Sea

A boat goes past herons feeding on Padilla Bay looking east across the bay. Scientists from the Padilla Bay reserve and elsewhere participated in the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle last month to discuss recent findings, ongoing research and challenges in understanding and protecting the Salish Sea.
A boat goes past herons feeding on Padilla Bay looking east across the bay. Scientists from the Padilla Bay reserve and elsewhere participated in the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle last month to discuss recent findings, ongoing research and challenges in understanding and protecting the Salish Sea. AP file

Scientists at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve described some of their research projects Friday, providing area citizen scientists and volunteers with a snapshot of talks they gave in April at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle.

The conference reached a milestone this year, having first been held 30 years ago, said Western Washington University’s Salish Sea Institute Director Ginny Broadhurst, who helped organize the event.

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference brings together scientists from throughout the Salish Sea region in the United States and Canada to discuss recent findings, ongoing research and challenges in understanding and protecting the Salish Sea.

During the three-day event, local scientists from the Padilla Bay reserve, Skagit Climate Science Consortium, Skagit River System Cooperative and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community were among many from government, nonprofit and university organizations who participated.

Back at their home base Friday, some Padilla Bay scientists revisited the topics they discussed in Seattle, including how water temperature may affect eelgrass, how bull kelp is being surveyed by kayak and how the community of tiny lifeforms in the bay changes with seasonal influences.

They explained that research has shown that as the tide, seasons and other factors change, so does water temperature and the presence of kelp, eelgrass and zooplankton.

The scientists said the factors that influence Padilla Bay are complex, so it can be difficult to draw conclusions.

The reserve’s data mapping specialist, Suzanne Shull, said researchers using data gathered by those kayaking around bull kelp beds have found a way to more reliably detect trends. The challenge is that year-to-year, day-to-day or even hour-to-hour changes such as water movement can influence measurements around the kelp beds.

Shull said in light of that, the Northwest Straits Initiative project has identified a 30 percent variation in size from year to year as being a sign of growth or decline for the kelp beds.

Scientists are also watching for changes in eelgrass beds.

Heath Bohlmann, an environmental scientist at Padilla Bay, said a study done in 2017 to evaluate water temperature and eelgrass types has shown that water temperatures, particularly during the summer, may be nearing the thresholds favorable for eelgrass growth and survival in parts of the bay.

As water temperatures in the bay continue to increase as the global climate warms, the location of both native and nonnative eelgrass in the bay could shift, Bohlmann said.

Meanwhile, environmental scientist Nicole Burnett said she has detected changes in zooplankton. Those include shrimp and crab larvae.

The abundance of several types of zooplankton varies by season, according to 10 years of data collected monthly in the bay, Burnett said.

The abundance of different types of zooplankton also appears to change in response to ocean conditions, such as warmer waters between 2014 and 2016.

Burnett said during those years, she saw fewer zooplankton during the spring and saw more zooplankton during the summer.

As oceans warm, Padilla Bay could continue to see increasing amounts of zooplankton during summer and fall, she said.

Yet because many other factors also influence eelgrass, kelp and zooplankton, it’s impossible to say for certain how the bay will respond as ocean conditions change.

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