March 21 – A one-of-a-kind sanctuary has been created off Everett, where 2,300 acres of flooded land has been barred from development for 50 years.
Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz created the protected area with the stroke of a pen, removing flooded land from potential development. Kelp forests and eelgrass meadows are protected near Hat Island and in the Snohomish River estuary.
“We’re just getting started,” said Franz, who added that the protection zones will be just part of a new state effort under a measure, SB5619, that was just released. passed by the Legislature to conserve and restore 10,000 acres of kelp and eelgrass by 2040.
Kelp and eelgrass are the forests and seagrass meadows that support and nurture aquatic life, just as grasslands and forests are refuges on land. The seagrass and kelp meadows are the redoubt for a myriad of tiny, unsung life that feed and shelter glamorous species such as sea otters, salmon and killer whales. Kelp forests also provide migratory corridors for baby salmon heading out to sea and for adults returning to their river of origin.
“It’s part of the circle of life, one of the links in the chain, and without it everything falls apart,” Samish Indian Nation president Tom Wooten said of eelgrass and kelp. .
But there are problems in this blue-green paradise.
“I’ve lived here on our traditional territory in Anacortes all my life, and I’ve seen what’s happening with all natural resources, but with kelp and eelgrass in particular,” Wooten said.
Monitoring by the tribe mapped a 36% loss of kelp in their traditional territory in and around the San Juan Islands from 2006 to 2016, said Todd Woodard, the tribe’s director of natural resources. Losses on some of the northernmost islands in their territory are even higher, at around 70%, Woodard said. “This is ringing the alarm bells.”
Warming water, especially during recent marine heat waves, is thought to be a culprit, especially when water temperatures can spike in areas of low energy waves and currents.
Kelp is a keystone not only for the environment, but also for tribal culture, Woodard said.
Declines were first seen by Samish elders who struggled to get large blades of kelp to wrap salmon for cooking, Woodard said.
Traditionally, the first rattles for Samish babies are dried kelp bulbs with pebbles inside. Eulachon oil burned for light was also carried in the bulbs. And eelgrass and kelp harbor the pearly roe of herring, savored at feasts.
Even their extended family needs kelp, Woodard said. The southern resident killer whales, especially the J-pod, which the Samish regard as relatives, play in the kelp, wrapping it around their flukes and flipping it with their tails. “We don’t know why it’s important to them, but it is,” Woodard said.
Seagrass beds coincide with so many traditional foods treasured by the tribe, Woodard said. “When the tide goes out, the table is set – and when it’s low enough, you can go out and grab your crab.”
The overall area of eelgrass in Puget Sound is considered relatively stable at about 57,000 acres, based on 18 years of monitoring by the Department of Natural Resources.
But these statistics hide big losses in local areas. Some San Juan Island inlets and bays once home to lush eelgrass meadows have been completely denuded, said Cornell University professor emeritus Drew Harvell. She’s a senior scientist at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs studying a debilitating disease that kills eelgrass.
The disease is fueled by warmer water brought on by climate change, Harvell noted. The wasting disease is spread both by water and by contact of infected blades with healthy plaques.
The combined threats of urbanization and warming make preserving healthy seagrass pastures all the more important, Harvell said.
Eelgrass is an ecosystem with superpowers, she said, ranging from providing biodiversity hotspots to cleaning water and even helping absorb carbon dioxide, for example. the process of photosynthesis.
In this way, protecting kelp and eelgrass also helps build climate resilience, Harvell said. “What’s good for the environment is also good for people.”
Healthy eelgrass pastures offer mesmerizing beauty, gently rustling in the ticking of the tide. On a sunny day, the eelgrass is dotted with silver bubbles of oxygen along vibrant green blades, as the grasses sparkle with photosynthesis.
Preservation can now protect strongholds that can reseed other areas, Harvell noted. “It’s so much faster and cheaper if we can preserve sites rather than trying to restore something that’s completely damaged.”
The new protection area is part of a watershed-wide action plan for the Snohomish River announced by Franz last month in Everett. She calls it a “Tree to Sea” effort, to work with other partners, including tribal, federal and local governments, to help restore salmon populations, working at the watershed scale.
The salmon are in decline from 1,000 cuts and it will take a multi-pronged strategy from many partners to rebuild their numbers, Franz said.
The Snohomish is the pilot project, which for MNR will include a range of work from stepping up efforts to remove derelict ships and creosote pilings, to planting trees and placing large woody debris in streams to help bring the complex habitat that salmon require back into their fresh environment. aquatic phase of life.
Bart Christiaen, an eelgrass specialist with MNR, said the Snohomish was targeted for the first preservation area in part because there is a large area of eelgrass near the river delta. “It’s very important for our migrating chum and chinook salmon; it’s the first eelgrass bed they encounter on their migration.”
The meadow also connects to a kelp bed that acts as a migration corridor, said MNR kelp expert Helen Barry. “These eelgrass and kelp beds are the building blocks of the ecosystem; I think of them as the foundation of the habitat, with somewhere to live and something to eat.”
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