MRC works to determine how Sound the sea will be

Island County’s 212 miles of shoreline have been traversed before, but never with this kind of scrutiny.

During the last five years, every foot of Whidbey and Camano island shoreline has been studied, mapped, photographed, and videotaped by volunteers and contractors documenting beds of eelgrass, forage fish spawning areas, and man-made structures such as bulkheads, pilings and steel rails.

After five years of existence, the Island County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) has come to know the island shoreline better than any group coming before it.

Knowing what is there is half the battle to knowing how to protect it, said Tom Campbell, a former chair of the MRC from Langley.

Using satellite technology, the MRC is building a map of the shoreline accurate to within a couple feet. Considering that the state has placed a “no net loss” designation on eelgrass and forage fish, this information is crucial to island living.

It’s already proven to be a big asset for planning purposes. State mandates require that all waterfront development include an analysis of forage fish and eelgrass impacts. This costs the developer money for a biological assessment and takes more time for county planners. The MRC maps help protect the environment and save everyone time and money, said Gary Wood, executive director of Island County MRC.

Oak Harbor was recently able to bypass an expensive investigation phase in developing a marine structure because it was able to rely on MRC data, he said.

“Our goal is to have enough information so if someone wanted to do something at the water’s edge, the county planner will havwe enough information to know what’s out there,” Campbell said.

The Island County MRC is one of seven federally-funded programs charged with documenting, improving, and protecting Puget Sound beaches. The effort is local, rather than forced through federal mandates, regulations, and government agencies.

During the 1990s, a controversial political movement in Congress attempted to designate northern Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca as a marine sanctuary, complete with federal oversight and regulations. The movement was seen as a way to clean up the waters and beaches and protect the area’s waning natural resources.

To head off the federal oversight and still accomplish those goals, Congress instead created the Northwest Straits Commission. The idea was to place the responsibility in the hands of local authorities, said Tom Cowan, executive director of the commission.

The Northwest Straits Commission serves as a coordinating body for the seven MRCs, providing funding, technical expertise, and scientific peer review or oversight of MRC programs.

“Really, it’s a bottom up type structure,” Cowan said. “It’s not like we can tell the MRCs what to do.”

In fact, the 13-member commission is intentionally structured so the seven MRCs hold more than half the seats.

Bringing groups together

The Congressional authorization required that various marine stakeholders be part of the process, including property owners, fishing interests, the U.S. Navy, commercial marine, and agriculture. Most of those original members had previously never met each other, except through litigation, Wood said.

“They talked past each other for years and about each other and against each other,” he said. “And here they were all sitting together in one room.”

Wood said that the group’s lack of power became very empowering. Since they didn’t have to fight over regulations or restrictive uses, they were able to look forward as a group toward education and scientific research.

Campbell agreed, saying that bringing the various stakeholders together was the “brilliance” in the plan.

“The MRC is different in that it has no power,” Campbell said. “It only has the power of persuasion.”

Island and San Juan counties have been leaders in the process, Cowan said. The Island County MRC was recently recognized by the Northwest Straights Commission and in a Congressional report for work in developing programs and pursuing grants on its own. Although administered through the county, there are no Island County funds in the program. The commission provides about $80,000 a year and various grants have provided more than $800,000 in outside funds.

A grassroots effort

The grassroots effort behind the MRC is its heart and its success, according to Don Meehan, a board member and director of the WSU Extension Service in Island County.

“Federal, state, and county government are very good at making regulations to deal with this sort of thing,” he said. “But, regulations are often made because we don’t know how to think about a problem properly.”

Education and research is the key. If local residents know where various resources are located and understand their importance, the hope is they will protect them, Wood said.

As an example, Wood pointed out a new program tested on Camano Island called Shore Stewards. That program goes directly to the waterfront owner, providing educational information and asking them to watch over their beaches. Shore stewards agree to a set of principles concerning their own waterfront living practices and become the eyes of the MRC, reporting useful information.

If government had attempted to regulate homeowner actions, it would have failed miserably, Wood said. But, when left as a volunteer effort, people respond in large numbers.

“Developing rules and regulations is a poor way to get people to change their behavior,” he said. “Through stewardship, we’re saying it’s yours, do with it what you wish, but by the way, it’s in your own self-interest to take care of it.

“Property owners are jumping at it because the truth is their investment is valuable to them and they want to take care of it.”

Wood is currently waiting on a final decision on a federal grant that will allow the program to expand to Whidbey Island this year. The program is also expected to expand to the other counties, Cowan said.

Beach Watchers also plays a big role in the MRC programs, Meehan said. The volunteer group, started in Island County in 1990, is being expanded through the Northwest Straits Commission this year to the other six counties of northern Puget Sound. Beach Watchers have provided more than 100,000 hours of education and shoreline protection work in Island County, according to MRC documents. More than 400 volunteers took part in Beach Watcher training this year.

Mapping it out

Research is underway on Island County to get a better scientific understanding about the role of eelgrass and forage fish along local beaches. Eelgrass beds are considered critical habitat for nearshore marine life, including forage fish, juvenile salmon, and crab. The MRC is locating and mapping eelgrass and taking underwater video of five priority areas, including Holmes Harbor and the Maxwelton Creek outfall on South Whidbey.

Beach Watcher volunteers sent a questionnaire to 4,500 shoreline property owners, asking them to survey their local beach at low tide. The survey was returned by 392 property owners who found eelgrass in front of their homes, according to MRC documents.

“It turns out Island County is rich in eelgrass and forage fish spawning areas,” Wood said. Sixty percent of all the eelgrass in Puget Sound is found on Island County and San Juan County beaches, he said.

Forage fish, such as sand lance, herring, and surf smelt, are a main food source for salmon, rockfish, marine birds, and marine mammals. The health of animals higher up on the food chain are dependent upon healthy populations of forage fish. The MRC received a grant to identify local beaches used as spawning areas by forage fish to create a baseline for future monitoring.

As part of its data base for monitoring forage fish, the MRC is also monitoring the “feeder” bluffs which constantly create new beach gravels essential for fish spawning. Mapping the man-made structures along the shoreline is part of understanding how such alterations impact the natural erosion of the bluffs and, therefore, the quality of spawning gravels.

Information on the Marine Resources Committee programs and studies are available at

Island group leads way in documenting shoreline resources

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