“What are you guys doing?” asked curious onlookers on the dock at Joemma Beach State Park in late July. Local volunteers assisted an enthusiastic team of scientists and students working to restore eelgrass beds in the sub-tidal zone off Joemma Beach.
“We simply could not accomplish this task without the help of volunteers,” said field project manager Emily Duncanson, an environmental scientist for the engineering firm Hart Crowser. She led the team transplanting thousands of live eelgrass shoots carefully harvested by scientific divers from robust eelgrass meadows at nearby Rocky Bay on Case Inlet.
With the hands-on help of students from Eric Wolgemuth’s environmental science class at Gig Harbor High School, the team laboriously prepared the eelgrass for planting by divers at the carefully selected site.
“The chance for students to participate in this restoration work and see with their own eyes what career opportunities await them in science was invaluable,” Wolgemuth said.
The multi agency restoration project is part of the Nearshore Habitat Program, which monitors and evaluates the status and trends of marine vegetation for the Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Resource Division, the agency that acts as steward for state-owned aquatic lands in conjunction with the Puget Sound Partnership.
Eelgrass meadows provide essential habitat in shallow waters for a wide variety of species including salmon, Dungeness crab and herring that use it for food, shelter and spawning grounds. Eelgrass reduces ocean acidification and removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it critical to combating the effects of climate change in Puget Sound.
Jeff Gaeckle, the project manager from DNR, said, “The eelgrass monitoring program has been ongoing since 2000.” He and colleague Ronald Thom, marine ecologist at the Pacific Northwest National Labs in Sequim, wrote a grant for the eelgrass restoration program that was successfully funded by the EPA in December 2012. Thom, who has been internationally recognized for his work restoring damaged coastal ecosystems, pioneered techniques for salvaging and restoring eelgrass beds that have become a model for restoration.
“We planted the first test sites at Joemma Beach in the spring of 2013. Initial monitoring found it successful in 2014 and the eelgrass persisted into 2015, which was indicative that Joemma was a suitable location for restoration,” said Gaeckle.
Eelgrass is in decline globally, subjected to stressors such as pollution, dredging, reduced sunlight from the shadows of structures, damage from boat anchors and mooring buoys, and the growing consequences of climate change. Its health is a key indicator of changing conditions in local watersheds draining into Puget Sound.
“It’s amazing flying over areas with good water clarity, such as bays in Florida, for example,” said Gaeckle. “From the air, you’ll see these small pock marks where the mooring chains have scoured the grass away.”
To prepare the eelgrass harvested from healthy donor beds for transplant, the team at Hart Crowser came up with using burlap strips. Staff and volunteers use a fid apparatus to poke measured holes in the burlap. The eelgrass is then carefully woven into the burlap strips.
“Divers dig a trough, lay the loaded burlap strips woven with eelgrass into the shallow trench and secure it with sod staples to hold it down. We cover it back up, repeating the process in a grid pattern with the hope they will grow outward,” explained scientific diver and microbiologist Ryan McLaughlin.
There is little eelgrass in the South Sound relative to the rest of Puget Sound. The northern end of Case Inlet has a very healthy meadow of eelgrass at Rocky Bay. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and scientists committed to restoring the health of Puget Sound, the waters off Joemma Beach are poised to become a healthy part of the ecosystem, according to McLaughlin.
Bailey Martin, a senior in the environmental science class, said, “After we learned about the eelgrass and the impact it has on the health of Puget Sound, it made me feel kind of protective of the eelgrass and I was making sure I was putting it in correctly so it would have a good chance of surviving.”
Sophomore Zach Yerbich-Louman said, “It was a very fulfilling project. It was really slow, tedious work to pull the eelgrass apart, but every little bit makes a difference.”