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Saving seagrass in Puget Sound

July 25, 2022

The San Juan islands lie in the maze of waterways of the Salish Sea in northwestern Washington, just miles from the Canadian border. People from across the country and around the world visit to fish, boat, and observe the iconic orcas (killer whales) that frequent the area. Underlying this ecosystem is a critically important, but often underappreciated, family of seagrass plants.

Dr. Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria has spent decades studying seagrass around the world and has worked at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs since the early 2000s. Since first partnering with Seacology and the San Juan Islands Conservation District in 2020, Wyllie-Echeverria and his students at FHL’s Seagrass Lab have employed several innovative methods to reseed degraded areas of nearby Westcott Bay with Zostera marina, commonly known as eelgrass.

Eelgrass is found along coastlines worldwide, but has been disappearing in many places. This spells bad news in the San Juans, where eelgrass is an important foundation for the local food web, from tiny herring spawn, to Chinook salmon, to the orcas. All of these species are important to the local economy, supporting fisheries and the whale-watching tours that draw thousands of visitors each year. Furthermore, eelgrass stabilizes intertidal areas around the islands, preventing erosion, and is a “blue carbon” ecosystem, keeping enormous quantities of carbon out of the atmosphere.

For countless generations, the eelgrass has also been important to the indigenous Coast Salish communities that call the San Juans home. The FHL team’s restoration work is motivated in part by a commitment to the tribes’ continued presence and role on the islands.

“Friday Harbor Labs occupies the land that has been inhabited by the Coast Salish since time immemorial,” explained Wyllie-Echeverria. “They value these plants, both culturally and as a valuable habitat for the species they harvest, such as herring roe and Dungeness crab.”

We recently caught up with Sandy and his student Yuki Wilmerding at Friday Harbor Labs. They  discuss the importance of eelgrass to the San Juans, why it’s in decline there, and how their partnership with Seacology is making a difference. Check out our interview below.