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GPS team helps map Whidbey Island's hardened shorelines

Whidbey Island waterfront home owners may be asking who that strange person is on the beach and wondering what he or she is doing?

Those strangers with yellow backpacks are volunteers helping to map current conditions of Whidbey public and private beaches.

About a dozen volunteers began walking the 160 miles of Whidbey Island's shorelines in August to map all of the man-made structures.

The volunteers, trained by Island County WSU Extension Beach Watchers program, are walking public and private beaches to develop up-to-date information on structures such as bulkheads, piers, boat ramps and water outfalls.

According to Don Meehan, director of the extension office in Coupeville, "the purpose is to develop strategies to protect what we have by learning more about the shorelines."

Called a hardening survey, volunteers carry global positioning satellite devices that can map and store data about Whidbey's shoreline and any modifications.

Meehan said GPS "accuracy is quite good and provides a fair amount of precision, within about two feet."

This is the first time a high-tech beach survey has been done on Whidbey Island. Volunteer beach watchers conducted a similar survey several years ago, physically measuring each man-made structure. Camano Island beaches were mapped with a GPS system in 2001.

"The data will help us understand the role, if any, of shoreline hardening in the health of species such as eelgrass, forage fish and salmon." Meehan said. "The survey will also provide a direct means of monitoring changes over time to Whidbey's shorelines."

Meehan emphasized that the project will not lead to more regulations or restrictions.

The hardening survey is funded by a $10,000 grant from the Northwest Straits Commission through the Marine Resources Committee and extension office, and is expected to be completed by summer 2004.

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