TIDAL LIFE: The story on the water

One day last August, after snorkeling off our Holmes Harbor beach, my son stood dripping on the lawn.

“What happened to the eelgrass?” he said.

“What about it?”

“It’s gone.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, thinking of the times I’d been tangled in the long strands.

“Nope, nothing but sand. I did see three kelp crabs. I’ve never seen more than one before.”

“You’ve been honored.” These reclusive, long-limbed crabs are hard to spot.

“Not really,” he said. “They were dead.”

A few days later my neighbor Gerry returned from kayaking saying he could see nothing but sand on the bottom of the harbor. He, too, asked, “What happened to the eelgrass?”

Knowing eelgrass was important, Gerry and I sought answers. He called state agencies that monitor eelgrass meadows. I sent panicky notes to scientists who study eelgrass, crabs and water quality.

My friend Sandy Wylie-Echeverria, of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor lab, told me loss of eelgrass has a cascading effect.

“When you lose eelgrass,” he said, “you lose structure in the water column.”

In other words, there’s no place for little fish to hide and grow into big fish. The sediment changes. Invertebrates, waterfowl and salmon all suffer.

Gerry and I jumped to conclusions. There must be one culprit, scofflaw or evildoer to blame for the disappearance of eelgrass. We learned instead that a major cause is all of us. The potential salvation is the same, all of us. The reason we should care about eelgrass disappearing — drum roll please — all of us.

And what are we all doing that can harm eelgrass and other sensitive species? Nothing diabolical, just living our lives. Cleaning our roofs with moss killers and letting the residue flow to the bay. Planting roses, then treating them with spray that drifts over the bay. Dosing hot tubs with chemicals, then draining them into ditches that lead to the harbor. Cleaning up after our dogs and throwing their poop into the bay. Taking our kids water skiing, then cleaning the boat with detergents as it sits right on the waters of the bay.

For the privilege of living at the waterfront, we willingly pay a premium.

But Gerry and I demonstrated something else we need: to pay attention. We’re the front line, here to notice changes in the sea we look out on every day. It’s not a bad job; we also enjoy front row seats on the antics of the aquatic world. The seasons of marine life get ingrained in us. We get up one morning thinking it’s been too long since we’ve heard a loon, then a few days later wake to that haunting laugh.

On the flip side, we’re here year-in and year-out, witnessing reduced numbers of scoters, realizing at the end of summer that no gray whales have cruised by, watching the very reasons we came here disappearing. We have great views, but one of the oh-so-lovely sights is the local outfall that dumps tainted runoff onto the beach.

Our bluffs slough, algae blooms perfume the air and our shellfish are inedible. Something is wrong, but we’re not sure what to do.

In the fight for Puget Sound, our worst enemy is our own innate desire to do things the easiest, cheapest way. Another is the confusing array of products and methods touted as “environmentally friendly.” No one has time to sort it all out.

I’ve been dragging my feet about some house and garden projects because I know my choices matter to the health of the Sound and I’m unsure what’s best.

Other islanders are in the same boat. So, rather than grab the quick-and-easy fix, I’m diving in to look for better methods and report what I find. I’ll investigate such topics as bluffs, roof maintenance, native plants, hot tubs, marine mammals, sea birds, cleaning products and more on eelgrass.

On Whidbey no one lives far from the beach. Runoff makes its way from every part of the island to the waters that cradle this exceptional community. No matter where we live, we need to do things differently now for the future of Puget Sound. We’re writing the next chapter in the adventure of island life. Lets make it a blockbuster with thousands of heroes.


In memory of Gerry Rawlings, good neighbor, tireless bike riding fundraiser and passionate advocate for a vital community.