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Port looks at salmon study

It’s taken longer than expected, but a sanctuary for baby salmon on South Whidbey may be closer to fruition.

On Jan. 9, research ecologist Aundrea McBride from the Skagit River System Cooperative presented an update on the feasibility study being done for property owned by the Port of South Whidbey at Possession Beach Waterfront Park.

The plan was first broached almost two years ago.

At that time the Swinomish and Lummi tribes joined to fund a study to identify “nearshore” habitat restoration sites for salmon in the early stages of their life cycle.

The study is devoted to exploring the possibilities of restoring estuary habitat area for Chinook salmon fry without causing problems for folks using the boat launch ramp or simply enjoying the beach nearby.

Cooperative scientists found that tiny salmon take up residence in small estuaries along Whidbey and Camano islands. With no predators and lower salinity, they grow stronger and faster before their journey out to sea.

By creating protected salt water estuaries the tribes hope to dramatically increase the number of salmon that successfully return to their spawning grounds in the Snohomish, Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers.

Researchers got permission from the port in 2006 to focus on seven acres at Possession park owned by the public.

Historically, Possession was a long spit opening to the north via a long tidal channel. Its proximity to mainland river mouths across Puget Sound make it ideal for habitat projects, experts said.

The plan calls for breaching a channel in the high berm along the shore that would allow salt water to flow in at high tide, thereby providing access for the salmon.

Upon completion of the study, the port can choose to implement some or none of the recommendations included in the feasibility assessment.

The tribes are funding the restoration design, and depending on the cost of design, may assist the port in acquiring funding for the completion of the project.

McBride said the current boat ramp is prone to sediment accumulation.

“There is lots of it due to the large amount of sediments traveling along this beach, and is typical of the lower stretch of east and south Whidbey.”

She added that clearing the sand would be more efficient if sediment scrapings were always deposited north of the ramp, north of the dock footing.

“Breaching the marsh is possible and would result in restoration of important fish habitat that existed at this site in the past,” she said.

“Recent science has established that Chinook salmon prefer this type of habitat and are more successful growing and avoiding predators in this type of marsh habitat.”

McBride said it may be possible to combine a restoration solution with a site improvement project to reduce sediment build-up on the boat ramp.

“Possibly an elevated ramp may cut down sediment accumulation on the ramp, though this is likely more trouble than it is worth,” she noted.

The marsh actually extends farther north onto private property.

Meetings are planned to gauge landowners’ feelings about the project, but the project could be done without them.

The next step is to examine sediment data and consider the engineering needed to make the breach possible.

McBride told commissioners that the study should be done by summer.

McBride also said money is available for building the estuary.

“It’s easy to get construction dollars, hard to get study dollars, and that’s why the tribes decided to pay for the study,” she said.

So far, port officials like what they see.

“We’d be well served to have such an improvement at Possession park,” said South Whidbey Port Commissioner Lynae Slinden.

“I’m really excited by the idea of combining environmental protection while helping to protect the future of salmon in the waters around the island. That’s what a port district should do.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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