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Island’s undersea nursery

Editors Note: This is the first of two parts on beach seining. Next week: nearshore habitat and adaptive management.

Ankle deep in the chill waters off Crystal Springs, a half-dozen lifejacketed volunteers sift through a roiling pool of seaweed soup, churned up by hundreds of yellow-striped shiner perch.

The crew, careful to keep the netted fish submerged, sorts the catch: 30 each of the sculpin and shiners, and all of the more precious cargo, slide into the 5-gallon buckets.

Crouched on the shore, Peter Namtvedt Best waves a wand over the silvery finger-length fish he’s placed on the measuring board. The resulting beep lights up the faces of the beach seining team like magic.

What Best and his crew have conjured up is a juvenile chinook salmon, spawned at a coastal hatchery the year before, tagged with an embedded metal marker and released – only to find its way into the nets of the Bainbridge Beach Seining Project.

The first organized and ongoing study of the island’s estuarine zone – where freshwater from streams meets saltwater from the sound – the study has made 150 visits to beaches around the island, and caught, cataloged and released more than 41,000 marine organisms in the shallow waters.

“When we began just over two years ago, there wasn’t (much) data on which fish are out there, when, and how they are using our nearshore environment,” said Best, the ecologist and city planner overseeing the project. “What we’re doing is taking a ‘baseline’ inventory.”

The study is a joint effort by the city, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Suquamish Tribe. The tribe provides the permits, boat and other equipment – including the 100-foot-long “seining” net – for the study, as part of ongoing efforts to evaluate the impact of its hatcheries on wild salmonid populations.

Since 1999, when Puget Sound chinook were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, this kind of nearshore marine study has intensified, Best says, as the importance of the estuarine environment to salmon is better understood.

“We’ve always thought of (salmon survival) as a freshwater problem, because that’s where we’ve always looked,” he said. “But overall productivity could be limited by the amount of rearing habitat that exists.

“These shallow waters are nursery habitats for juvenile salmon and other species. We see thousands of organisms in a 1,000-square-foot sample.”

Rich waters

While the data hasn’t been analysed, Best says, the initial information they’ve gotten from tagged fish runs contrary to traditional models of salmon migration.

“What we see is a massive dispersal of fish,” he said. “We’ve caught fish here that spawned in the Green River, the White River, the Nisqually River, Issaquah and Miller Bay” – points of origin much further away than previously predicted.

The chinook captured this day will provide one more data point, a rewarding catch for the crew that’s signed on for the day-long boat trip.

Neither experience nor expertise is a requirement for the volunteers, who come from as far as Port Orchard to participate.

“It’s a great way to see the island, find out what’s out here,” said islander and frequent seining volunteer Joe Deets. “You can learn from books, but there is nothing like seeing it for yourself.”

There to be seen are creatures both mundane and bizarre – salmonids of all kinds, from fullgrown steelheed to tiny pinks just “zipping up,” absorbing their egg sac; local residents like dungeness crab, sand lance and surf smelt; bay pipefish and gunnels, sinuous and slippery as seaweed; and the odd Pacific spiny lumpsucker (only slightly spiny, but extremely lumplike).

As valuable as the data collected on salmon and other species is, says Best, it is the diversity of life and habitat around the island which strikes the volunteers – and has them regularly returning for six hours of sometimes-choppy seas and always-awkward waders.

“Water can seem like a sterile environment until you experience what’s beneath the surface,” he said.

* * * * *

Beach seining trips are conducted every other Wednesday through the spring and summer, beginning March 24. To volunteer, contact Peter Best at pbest@ci.bainbridge-isl.wa.us or 780-3719.

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