Green, green eelgrass of home

New beds in Eagle Harbor could boost nearshore ecological health.

The volunteers dig muddy furrows in tideflats that smell heavily of the sea. Mucky mud, under patches of stringy, spring-green seaweed, sucks at boots and threaten to unshoe them.

One by one the shoots of eelgrass, looking like strands of drowned chives, are gently planted into their new home – in an environmental restoration project that could gauge, and improve, the ecological health of Eagle Harbor.

“Eelgrass is the canary of water quality,” said Merrill Robison, whose Lovell Avenue tideflats received the eelgrass transplant of eelgrass, in a project sponsored by the Bainbridge-based Puget Sound Restoration Fund.

Growing in tidelands, eelgrass serves as a nursery for fish eggs and a habitat for young fish and crabs, sheltering them from open water predators.

Where it thrives, they thrive. Its own fortunes are tied to the success of oysters and other natural “filters” that contribute to water quality.

Yet while it was historically found in Eagle Harbor, the plant has waned there. The eelgrass introduced Friday morning was harvested from tidelands at the north end of the island.

If it takes, Betsy Peabody, PSRF executive director, hopes to introduce more there in the future.

“If this works out, we’ll need to plant more – this could become an eelgrass nursery,” Peabody said. “We don’t have as much eelgrass as before. We want to develop the local capability so we can transplant to where it was historically.”

The equation includes both planting methodology and navigating government regulations. The city required that the project go through a shoreline permit process, as eelgrass is protected. A permit was also needed from the Washington State De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife.

And as the transplanting can only be done at very low tide – and a window after Friday’s low tide of minus 4.1 would not reoccur for another year – there was the pressure of time.

“There’s a real stink of a process you have to go through to do anything with eelgrass. To remove it or restore it, it doesn’t matter,” Peabody said, crediting city officials for their help. The City Council endorsed the project by resolution, and approved waiver of a $1,080 permit fee.

“We got awe­some cooperation from the city (to expedite paperwork),” Robison agreed.

Established in 1997, the PSRF carries out marine restoration projects around the region, including streams, wetlands and shellfish beds. They have worked to boost stocks of the rare Olympia oyster in area waters.

PSRF volunteers and the city now will monitor the eelgrass for three years, measuring its density and survival.

Past attempts to replant were unsuccessful due to poor water quality. If harbor water is too cloudy, the underwater grass does not get enough light to thrive.

To give the new eelgrass an edge on survival, Robison will hang from his dock bags of oysters that cleanse the water. Peabody said it wouldn’t hurt if more harbor dwellers did the same.

“It’s the kind of thing that would appeal to this eccentric population,” she said, “taking our own stab at improving local waters (in a manner) that’s completely non-regulatory.”

Staff writer Douglas Crist

contributed to this report.

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