Salish Sea Heroes: Conway and La Conner 8th grade Scientists

Conway Middle School students, scientists, and volunteers gather for a welcome by Samish elder, Rosie Cayou James before their beach restoration research.

Conway Middle School students, scientists, and volunteers gather for a welcome by Samish elder, Rosie Cayou James before their beach restoration research.

These Grade 8 students in the central Salish Sea turned into marine biologists to tackle a very important question: is beach restoration helping fish? Twenty nine percent, or nearly 1/3, of Puget Sound has seawalls to prevent erosion of shorelines and the homes and businesses above them. This usually helps protect the properties, but can take away fish habitat, if not built thoughtfully.

A concrete, rip rap, boulder, or log wall causes the waves to take away more sand and gravel from the beach than are replaced by natural shoreline erosion. This leaves only cobble and boulders over time. Salish Sea neighbors like eelgrass, surf smelt, and sand lance (forage fish essential to the food web that feeds salmon, sea birds, and killer whales), who need sand and gravel for habitat or spawning, are losing ground…literally. Enter Salish Sea Heroes!

There are people who care a whole awful lot about the health of eelgrass ecosystems and forage fish spawning grounds and are restoring beaches. Many of these folks are Tribes and First Nations, taking responsible care of their natural resources. But how do we know if these beach projects are helping fish?

Conway students pull in the beach seine at the natural control site, with Samish Tribe Field Technician, Matt Castle, and retired Western Washington University biologist, Dr. Paul Dinnel supervising.

Conway students pull in the beach seine at the natural control site, with Samish Tribe Field Technician, Matt Castle, and retired Western Washington University biologist, Dr. Paul Dinnel supervising.

Students from La Conner and Conway Middle Schools in Skagit County, WA helped to shed some light on that question in May. They submitted research proposals to Team SeaDoc and carried out the winning procedures at two different beaches on Tribal land. Conway students, led by their teacher, Ron Haywood, worked alongside Samish, SeaDoc, and citizen scientists from Skagit and Whatcom Counties. They either caught fish or counted surf smelt eggs in the sand from five beach sites that had been restored at different times, plus a control site which was armored, and one that was a natural beach (never armored).

They suggested that beach restoration takes a long time to have an effect on fish, but that it is increasing smelt egg survival. They recommended planting shrubs and tall trees to shade smelt eggs from the drying sun.

La Conner students led by their teacher, Bob Plank, worked alongside Swinomish, SeaDoc, and citizen scientists to either test whether beach enhancement attracted surf smelt to spawn or to see whether there is more fish diversity inside or outside of the pocket estuary that was protected by the beach enhancement project.

Swinomish elder, Raymond Mitchell, welcomes and educates La Conner grade 8 students on the historic significance of their research site, Lone Tree Point before heading to the beach.

Swinomish elder, Raymond Mitchell, welcomes and educates La Conner grade 8 students on the historic significance of their research site, Lone Tree Point before heading to the beach.

Both beaches are sites important culturally to the Tribes for gathering resources from clams to crab to salmon. The data these kids gathered will be used by these tribes and by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for helping make important decisions about future beach-protection actions.

La Conner Middle School students and Swinomish Tribal members, Chloe and Rachel, test water quality with a sonde (electronic instrument for testing temperature, oxygen dissolved in the water, and pH) under the supervision of Swinomish Water Quality Technician, Andrea Pitz.

La Conner Middle School students and Swinomish Tribal members, Chloe and Rachel, test water quality with a sonde (electronic instrument for testing temperature, oxygen dissolved in the water, and pH) under the supervision of Swinomish Water Quality Technician, Andrea Pitz.

After the field work, students presented their research in the 2019 KOTB Student Science Symposium at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve because research doesn’t mean a thing until it is shared!

Well done La Conner and Conway Middle School students and teachers! You are true Salish Sea Heroes.

La Conner Middle School students, Leila, Andrea, and Malia, share water quality data they collected at a historical salmon fishing site important to their Tribe.

La Conner Middle School students, Leila, Andrea, and Malia, share water quality data they collected at a historical salmon fishing site important to their Tribe.