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Generations unite to protect San Juan Islands seagrass

December 18, 2020

Eelgrass might be the most important habitat you’ve never heard of. And it’s disappearing at a frightening rate — but experienced biologists, conservation professionals, and eager students are teaming up to bring back this crucial, endangered marine habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

The San Juan Islands, the secluded archipelago of hundreds of small islands near Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, are stunningly gorgeous. Only accessible by air or sea, their serene landscapes and abundant wildlife make the islands a popular destination for sea kayaking, camping, fishing, and recreational boating and sailing. Situated along the migratory routes of several species of whales, the archipelago is a great spot to observe the iconic orca whales.

All of this life relies on a fragile food web, and one of its foundations — an underwater flowering plant called eelgrass (Zostera marina) — is, like all seagrass, under increasing threat. Worldwide, seagrass beds are being damaged by anchors dropped from boats, as well as coastal development that produces pollution and sediment. It can take many decades for these slow-growing plants to recover.

Eelgrass provides habitat for coastal waterfowl, fish, and invertebrates, and its loss can ripple through the food chain, affecting everything from the smallest fish to the orcas that drive the local tourism economy. Eelgrass helps filter pollutants out of the water, and inhibits the growth of algae that can make shellfish toxic to humans. It fights coastal erosion. And eelgrass greatly outperforms most other kinds of vegetation when it comes to trapping carbon dioxide, making it a powerful resource in the fight against climate change.

Our first project in the region is helping to restore a degraded patch of eelgrass in Westcott Bay, a small inlet in San Juan Island. Seacology is funding a method of eelgrass restoration shown to be effective on the east coast but not yet widely adopted in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is the most important contribution to ecosystem health we could possibly pursue in the San Juan Islands at this time,” says Michael Ramsey of the San Juan Islands Conservation District.

This process involves harvesting flowering shoots from nearby areas and using two methods to reseed the restoration site. The first method involves placing flowering shoots in nets suspended above the sediment. When seeds ripen, they fall to the bottom and germinate. For the second method, scientists collect flowering shoots, culture them in flowing seawater, and then collect ripe seeds. They then broadcast the seeds by hand. Our partners anticipate that these methods will be more efficient than the conventional practice of transplanting adult plants and could be scaled up to restore larger areas.

A member of the team collects flowering shoots. © Sherrie House

Eelgrass seeds are removed from the spathe. © Tom Cogan

 

The project team is multigenerational, including Dr. Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, experts from the San Juan Islands Conservation District, and fourth-year college student Isabella Brown, a native of San Juan Island. But Brown isn’t new to the work — she began volunteering in Wyllie-Echeverria’s lab as a seventh-grader. While working on this project, she developed educational materials for local elementary and middle school students, hoping to pass her passion for conservation down to younger generations.

“Many eelgrass populations in the San Juans are desperately in need of help. This pilot project takes a multi-pronged approach to restore this population,” says Brown.

In October, this dedicated team spread the first seeds in Westcott Bay. They plan another round of planting in the spring — and will be checking to see if the carbon-trapping, wildlife-nurturing eelgrass is coming back.

A team member releases prepared seeds. © Michael Ramsey

Some of the shoots were placed in these nets over the restoration area. © Sean O'Connell


Learn more about our partners’ seagrass-restoration methods in this report, prepared by the University of Washington’s Elizabeth Nilles.

Seeding Methods