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Scientists come ashore to study island beaches

Andrew Schwartz, a coastal morphologist with the state Department of Ecology, checks the calibration of a hand-held location triangulation device that will pinpoint his location as Josh Stoll, a science technician for the U.S. Geologic Survey, looks on. - Spencer Webster / The Record
Andrew Schwartz, a coastal morphologist with the state Department of Ecology, checks the calibration of a hand-held location triangulation device that will pinpoint his location as Josh Stoll, a science technician for the U.S. Geologic Survey, looks on.
— image credit: Spencer Webster / The Record

POSSESSION POINT — Some say the best spot on Whidbey Island is a home on the beach.

But forage fish such as surf smelt and sand lancers also make their homes near Whidbey’s shores and spawn on the upper portions of beaches.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are visiting Whidbey Island through February to make house calls for the critters that live along the shore as part of a three-year study to determine how urbanization may impact forage fish habitat.

The forage fish are an indicator species, said Theresa Liedtke, a government biologist.

“These fish are in the low end of the food chain in the Puget Sound,” she said. “They are important for birds, salmon and orcas. If the indicator species are not healthy, then the ecosystem in the Puget Sound is not healthy.”

Last year, the inter-disciplinary team made up of biologists, geologists, geographers and water specialists worked at Liberty Bay, near Poulsbo in Kitsap County.

And now, they will be looking at the beach on the South End at Possession Point State Park.

“We are going out and scooping up collections of sand and looking for eggs,” Liedtke said.

As they search for eggs, they will be looking at a wide variety of factors, such as beach slope, shade levels, natural-versus-developed areas and whether forage fish are spawning.

They also will be looking at beach energy.

“The oceanographers will be using instruments and measuring energy,” Liedtke said. “And answering the questions ‘How much energy hits the beaches? What are the water temperatures?’”

There are other things to find out, too. Is there shade, bluff or woody debris?

“We would like to predict where they might spawn,” Liedtke said. “The end goal will be to walk onto a beach, see the shade, how steep the slope is and be able to say, ‘I think forage fish would spawn here.’ We are trying to build a predictive model.”

Each of nearly 20 study beaches will be inspected twice, Liedtke said.

“Then, we will count the eggs, process the data, which will take nine to 12 months. It will be a full year before we understand the results,” she said.

The information then will be combine with data from other areas that have been studied, such as Liberty Bay.

Liedtke saw a lot of development at Liberty Bay. She also saw development in Snohomish County, where her team will also sample.

“There is high energy at Possession Point, natural cliffs,” she said. “The cliff is eroding and feeds the beaches below. There is natural movement of sediments, creating a natural shoreline.”

South Whidbey beaches are better than some of their counterparts on the mainland.

Browns Bay, near Edmonds, is fully armored, Liedtke said, and has none of the natural beach movement that Possession Point has.

“The question we are asking is, ‘Is development in general on beaches or upshore affecting indicator species?’” she said. “We’re not really sure of the effect on the Sound. We’re looking at it like this is a canary in the coal mine. If fish are healthy, it gives a reflection of the health of the Puget Sound.”

Howard Garrett of the Orca Network said he was happy that scientists were coming to Whidbey Island to study its habitat.

“I am thrilled that these people are getting longitudinal data over time to determine trends,” Garrett said.

“It’s a start. The people at Puget Sound Partnership need this kind of data to show what the problems are in the Sound, so they can do something to protect habitat for the minutia, from algae all the way up to whales. This information could tell us a lot about our beaches,” he said.

“The link between land and water happens up on the beach,” Liedtke explained.

“Animals that stay in deep waters will be affected by boats. But indicator species are affected by development on beaches.”

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or swebster@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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