Updated Nov. 21, 2023
Samish Indian Nation natural resources technician Jennie De La Cruz stepped off the landing craft’s bow and into the 50-degree water off of Lawrence Point, which juts out from eastern Orcas Island into Rosario Strait.
She descended into an undersea forest that she would describe as breathtakingly beautiful — and under threat.
“This is one of the more biodiverse spots I’ve been to,” De La Cruz said. “I saw different invertebrates and fish, but it was the kelp that was very exciting to me.”
Swimming around her in this undersea forest were pile perch, lingcod and rockfish and “a big school of some kind of silver forage fish,” she said. “When I looked up, I could see all of their shiny bodies — it was a hundred or more.”
The Samish Nation’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has documented a 36% decline in kelp forest acreage in the San Juan archipelago, and De La Cruz and others regularly dive waters through Samish’s historical territory to try to find out why.
Warming waters are a suspected cause. Warmer sea temperatures are believed to be responsible for eelgrass die-offs here. The state Department of Natural Resources reports that one-third of eelgrass beds sampled near the San Juan Islands between 2015 and 2020 showed signs of declines, with no increases in growth.
Studies by Samish DNR reveal similarly grim statistics for kelp. Friends of the San Juans, an environmental advocacy group based in Friday Harbor, documented 845 acres of kelp in the archipelago in 2006; Samish DNR documented 540 acres 10 years later.
By contrast Samish Nation citizen Toby McLeod grew up hearing stories from his father and uncle who told him about kelp that was once so abundant that they could park their canoes atop islands of kelp and fish for salmon.
The kelp ecosystem
On a September morning as the current turned from slack to ebb, divers from Samish DNR and nonprofit Reef Check, a project partner, emerged from the depths to record animal and plant populations, water temperature and pH levels — data that may help identify a cause of kelp population decline and guide restoration efforts.
The state DNR’s Kelp Forest and Eelgrass Meadow Health and Conservation Plan calls for the restoration of at least 10,000 acres of kelp forest and eelgrass meadow habitat in Washington’s coastal areas by 2040.
Much depends on kelp forests for survival. Orcas and humans depend on salmon, and for Coast Salish peoples it is a cultural and spiritual bond. Salmon, in turn, depend on forage fish; forage fish depend on kelp forests, where they feed on microscopic plants and plankton.
“When I get down there and I see a healthy kelp forest ecosystem, it reaffirms the importance of kelp,” De La Cruz said. “You could even see that from the surface today .There was a sea lion hunting and catching salmon right outside of the kelp forest. There was a seal there as well, and porpoises. The kelp forest is supporting that entire food web, the whole ecosystem.
“When you get down underwater, you see not only the bull kelp but the subcanopy kelp — woody stemmed kelp, sugar kelp and wireleaf kelp — and all the invertebrates and fish that are living there. The more you see, the more you know the kelp is providing eally important critical habitat.”
The kelp research is part of a broader strategy to restore nearshore habitat which includes removing creosoted wood waste from beaches, restoring shorelines, and monitoring sediment, water quality and nearshore populations. More than 1 million pounds of creosoted wood waste has been removed since 2014, according to Matt Castle, natural resources manager within Samish DNR. It’s a strategy that is showing results.
Seining to monitor recovery
After the Point Lawrence dive, Samish DNR technicians conducted beach seine surveys at Samish’s Fidalgo Bay Resort and adjacent Weaverling Spit. The seining is done to assess how nearshore species are adapting to shoreline restoration.
A DNR technician pulled a net in the bay and turned to shore where the crew hauled it in, and counted and measured the critters inside before releasing them back to the wild.
It was quick work. Samish DNR field technician Andrew Delaney said each animal is handled no longer than seven seconds, to reduce stress. In the net were smelt, sculpin, summer perch and juvenile salmon. A sculpin brought up to be measured had a shrimp sticking out of its mouth.
Each of these animals depend on eelgrass and kelp for food and shelter.
There was excitement over a hooded nudibranch which smells like watermelon and is often found in eelgrass meadows, “a habitat that provides them with food and shelter from prey,” notes the SeaDoc Society. Nudibranch presence is a sign of eelgrass recovery.
“Beach seining enables us to assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts at March Point, Fidalgo Bay Resort and the former Custom Plywood site,” said Castle. Photos to confirm fish identification are sent to NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) after each seine.
Fidalgo Bay health
The Samish Nation is a partner with the City of Anacortes and state DNR on another project that would bolster the health of south Fidalgo Bay: replacement of the jetty and trestle that spans the bay from Weaverling Spit to March Point.
Tidal movement is currently restricted to a small opening in the jetty; if the project is funded, the opening in the jetty would be widened and the trestle rebuilt of steel, concrete and fiberglass.
“The goal is to improve the health of Fidalgo Bay by opening up the tidal flushing capacity to benefit habitat for salmon and marine species beneficial to salmon development and removing over 700 known creosote pilings,” according to a project summary on the city website.
“We are not the only Tribe in the country doing this work,” wrote Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten in a guest column submitted to media. “Tribes across the United States are contributing with impact to keep culture alive while preserving land for future generations. Through collective action and shared knowledge, we are fostering a legacy of environmental stewardship, ensuring that our land continues to thrive.”
“Given the [Samish Nation’s] unique history,” he went on, “We have come to realize that we cannot do this alone, and we all must work together in sharing the responsibility and, at the same time, doing our own part to make a difference for all our generations to come.”
— Reported by Richard Arlin Walker
[Ed.: Identification corrections made Nov. 21, 2023]