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Cherry Point

Citizen science can help manage marine treasures

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What’s next for Cherry Point? A detailed study of the health of this unique marine ecosystem, assisted in part by volunteers who serve as citizen scientists.

In October 2015, I received an email invitation to a public educational forum on the status of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve (CPAR). Living on Point Whitehorn, I was very familiar with Cherry Point and had walked its cobbled beaches enjoying Orca and other marine animals, birds and plants within the shadow of the heavy industry that dots its shoreline. Having been involved in salmon and riparian restoration projects in the area, I was interested to see what had been happening with this special marine habitat in “my backyard.”

Manager of public lands, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has established aquatic reserves throughout the state to “promote the preservation, restoration and enhancement of state-owned aquatic lands that are of special environmental, scientific or educational interest.” To date, seven areas including Cherry Point have been designated as Aquatic Reserves in Washington state. All but two abut locations with significant contact with people and industry. Volunteers assist the agency.

As a volunteer, little did I know how informed, energized and inspired I would be when I attended the Cherry Point Forum, hosted by its Citizen Stewardship Committee last October.

The forum was presented to a packed house at Bellingham Technical College. Four scientists shared their recent research into trends observed with the climate, animals, plants and geology at Cherry Point. They also highlighted for us how citizen science—the involvement of non-scientists in research projects—could make a difference in gathering knowledge about how to better manage the spectacular yet fragile resources at Cherry Point.

The guest research scientists were enthusiastic speakers and effective in describing the complexity of the natural processes at Cherry Point and the Salish Sea. They described how interconnected and dependent those processes are and what the future might hold if current trends persist. During each presentation, speakers highlighted the important role for citizen science and urged deeper public involvement.

Geology and Coastal Climate Change

Eric Grossman, Research Geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey began, describing the dynamic geology of the Cherry Point reserve and how the movement of sediment in response to waves and wind, influence the habitat and biological processes there, as well as the changing depth and heat of the water. This sediment influences the life forms that can become established, such as the types of grasses and other seaweeds that can take root and thrive.

Describing the role of seaweeds and seagrasses at Cherry Point, Thomas Mumford of Marine Agronomics, LLC, continued the theme of complex and interconnected processes, focusing on marine grasses, of which there are more than 625 species in Washington. He described their important ecological role, particularly that of kelp—from its productivity as food for fishes and other invertebrates to how kelp plants affect sediment movement, waves and currents, their role as refuge as well as in providing spawning and rearing habitat.

A third presentation discussed marine birds in Pacific Northwest waters. Dr. Julia Parrish, Associate Dean of Environment at the University of Washington, engaged rapt listeners, describing the characteristics of marine birds and the challenges involved in cataloguing their numbers and health at any location. Marine birds migrate, so they use different locations for nesting, rearing young and feeding. Some spend very little time near shore.

Parrish said marine birds can live a long time, with lifespans well into the 30 or more years. Some can live up to 70 years! In their extended lives, these birds can witness many changes.

Marine birds expend enormous energy parenting. It takes two parents to feed one chick, and the parents are frequently physically stressed as they tend their young and are therefore vulnerable.

Parrish highlighted the importance of COASST, (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team), a citizen science research project that obtains valuable information from dead birds found and examined by citizen science volunteers all along the west coast.

Melissa Miner of the University of California, Santa Cruz closed the forum with recent research on sea star wasting, a disease that has been observed at Cherry Point and all along the West Coast from Alaska to California, reinforcing the major themes of the ecological interconnection and adaptations of complex systems at Cherry Point. She described the devastating wasting of large numbers of sea stars and starfish species and large declines in resident populations.

I was excited to learn that the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve also has several related citizen science projects open to local volunteers. Projects in part evolve from the comprehensive management plan developed by DNR and a committee of stakeholders. Besides the citizen science projects, CPAR also focuses on education and outreach as well as technical review of permits and policies that may affect the reserve.

We are all critical to shaping a successful future for this treasured and fragile reserve. Through participating in the science of these important projects, and updating ourselves on the results of scientific research during the forums, we can assure that Cherry Point remains a place where sea life can thrive. That’s exciting.

Participation is easy and interested people can link to http://www.re-sources.org/programs/cleanwater/whatcom-and-skagit-county-aquatic-reserves or call Eleanor Hines at 360-733-8307 ext. 213.

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