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New high-tech buoy key to monitoring health of Bellingham Bay

Researchers prepare a high-tech buoy at Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, before launching it into Bellingham Bay to collect data to monitor the health of north Puget Sound and Salish Sea. The project is a collaboration of University of Washington, Western Washington University and Northwest Indian College.
Researchers prepare a high-tech buoy at Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, before launching it into Bellingham Bay to collect data to monitor the health of north Puget Sound and Salish Sea. The project is a collaboration of University of Washington, Western Washington University and Northwest Indian College. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A new buoy about two miles out in Bellingham Bay is collecting streams of data around the clock that scientists and students will use to monitor the health of north Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

It was pulled out to the western side of the bay on Thursday, Feb. 11, as a collaboration of Northwest Indian College, University of Washington and Western Washington University.

“This buoy is the only buoy in north Puget Sound — the only oceanographic, continuous, near real-time data in north Puget Sound,” said Marco Hatch, director of the Salish Sea Research Center at NWIC.

Oxygen values we see in the bay are low enough to harm fish and potentially crab as well.

Marco Hatch, director of the Salish Sea Research Center

UW is taking part through its partnership with the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction, which is based in Portland, Ore.

It was placed in an area of Bellingham Bay known for having low levels of oxygen, or hypoxia, during summer, and researchers hope to use the data the buoy is collecting to understand what’s happening.

“What’s causing those periods of low oxygen in Bellingham Bay?” Hatch said. “Oxygen values we see in the bay are low enough to harm fish and potentially crab as well.”

The piece of high-tech research equipment also is gathering atmospheric measurements, such as wind speed and air pressure. Its sensors are measuring conditions in the bay, including temperature, oxygen, salinity, pH levels and chlorophyll.

Erika McPhee-Shaw, director of Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center, likened it to finding out what conditions are for sea life the same way humans want to know about conditions up top

“We’re pretty much measuring ocean weather,” she said. “We’re asking for their weather.”

Students from all three colleges will be able to study the information. They’ll get hands-on experience collecting scientific data and learning about the equipment’s complexity as they maintain the ocean buoy.

The information will help provide a baseline of the marine ecosystem in the bay, which has been identified as being “data poor,” Hatch said.

It will help researchers as they study issues that threaten marine life, including hypoxia, algae blooms, the food web from the simplest phytoplankton on up, and ocean acidification. The buoy also will provide data needed to understand fluctuations in harvested species like Dungeness crab and clams, an issue that is important to Lummi Nation.

Researchers worked with Lummi Nation’s Natural Resources Department to find a site for the buoy, with an eye toward minimizing impacts on fishing, and to design its features.

We learn so much when we have an ongoing buoy in the water.

Jan Newton, UW oceanographer

The Lummis named the buoy “Se’lhaem,” for an island that was once near the mouth of the Nooksack River. The island was important to the Lummis as a place to harvest butter and horse clams as well as cockles.

“The buoy symbolizes both the Lummi Nation and Northwest Indian College’s desire to protect the health of Bellingham Bay and Salish Sea using the best scientific data available,” Hatch said.

The buoy will make it possible to gather streams of information over long periods of time and under different conditions — compared to a snapshot provided by going out to gather samples on a boat — that are essential to tracking trends, providing context, and understanding what’s going on in the bay.

“We learn so much when we have an ongoing buoy in the water,” said Jan Newton, UW oceanographer and head of the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

“You really learn a lot about that water environment,” added Newton, who is the project lead.

“It’s huge. It’s a huge amount of data,” Hatch said.

That information will be streamed to the website of the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems, where the public also will be able to access it.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Learn more

Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems: nanoos.org

Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction: stccmop.org

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