Tidelands make aquatic reserve list

Published on Thu, Oct 2, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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Tidelands make aquatic reserve list

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

Land near Cherry Point has been named one of the first aquatic reserves in the state, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Aquatic lands next to Maury Island, Fidalgo Bay and Cypress Island also made the list.

The reserves are the first in the state under the new aquatic reserves program � established in September of 2002 to provide DNR with a process to designate aquatic reserves on state-owned aquatic lands that have unique or high-quality ecological features and habitats. The goal of the program, officials say, is to protect and support aquatic systems and functions.

In a written statement, commissioner of public lands Doug Sutherland said aquatic reserves are an important part of creating healthy, aquatic ecosystems in Puget Sound. �Reserves can help support a connected system of habitat throughout the state that is important to our salmon runs and other aquatic life,� he stated. �The reserve program will contribute to a good balance between healthy ecosystems, economic opportunity and opportunities for public enjoyment of the state�s aquatic lands.�

The site includes tidelands and bedlands, and borders the Strait of Georgia and extends from the boundary of Birch Bay state park park south to the boundary of the Lummi Indian Reservation.

Cherry Point lands were recognized as a reserve, according to officials, because of its �extraordinary stretch of shoreline with excellent potential to maintain the relatively undeveloped character of the area. ... Aquatic diversity along this reach is very high with cobble intertidal habitat, large rocks and boulders, and kelp, just offshore.�

The herring spawning in the area was a main reason as well for the reserve distinction. According to the site�s reserve application, the Cherry Point herring stock were once the largest stock in the state of Washington. �Monitoring efforts have documented a steep decline in the health of this stock with the biomass declining from more than 14,000 tons in the 1970s to just more than 1,000 tons in recent years.�

A 2001 study, The Decline of Herring at Cherry Point, performed by the DNR stated that herring eggs deposited near Cherry Point have low hatching success and high rates of abnormal development. If development is normal, most larvae grow smaller than other areas.

�The spawning habitat at Cherry Point is also the site of major industrial activity,� the study said, noting the locations of ARCO, Intalco and Tosco. �Several industries use the spawning area...there is a growing need to ensure that the industrial activities are not contributing to the decline of herring in the area.�

According to BP�s public affairs representative Mike Abendhoff, the refinery monitors all of the aquatic life in and around its dock. �We are aware of the herring at Cherry Point,� he said. �It�s still a more healthier spot than in other areas of Puget Sound.�

As for the declining numbers, Abendhoff said �we need to figure out why that is. The numbers are declining, but the numbers around Cherry Point are still pretty good.�

In addition to the herring, large numbers of chinook salmon, migratory waterfowl and bald eagles also use the area as habitat. Kelp beds are found just offshore, including eelgrass � an important element for both birds and fish.

Much of the reserve�s area is within the shoreline zones designated as the Cherry Point management unit and the adjacent upland is zoned for heavy impact industrial areas. Areas near Birch Bay State Park and Point Whitehorn is zoned for urban residence, and designated by the county as aquatic. Shore development, the application states, is limited to uses that are compatible with conservation of area resources and water dependent.

Alan Friedlob, co-founder of Smart Growth Birch Bay, said growth within the Birch Bay urban growth area must not diminish the bay as a regional asset.

�The DNR�s designation of the Cherry Point area as an aquatic reserve, part of which borders the Point Whitehorn neighborhood, means that we be extra vigilant when it comes to urbanizing land and the community that rings the bay,� he said. �Designation is a wake-up call for monitoring such things as stormwater management and encouraging low-impact development on in-fill construction around the bay.�

Friedlob also stated that the reserve status could help to create additional public lands.

�The designation, plus the open opposition of the BP Refinery to residential growth in West Cherry Point, argues that the Trillium Corporation reopen dialogue with the Whatcom Land Trust, county officials, and other interested parties about selling area property at a fair market price, allowing these parties to then designate all or part of this land parcel which also abuts the reserve, as public park and nature conservancy,� he said.

During the Whatcom County planning commission last Thursday at the county courthouse, the commission voted 7-0 to remove West Cherry Point from the Birch Bay comprehensive plan.

Reserve process
The process of establishing these aquatic reserves took over a year. The DNR reviewed each of the four sites under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and communicated with the public to study the recommendation, so that sites are managed in a way that is compatible with the surrounding lands and zoning.

Initially there were six total sites - Olympic View and Middle Waterway in Commencment Bay were included � but were not recommended as reserves. These sites were, however, recognized as important restored habitat.

The DNR�s study of the reserve sites involved the Aquatic Reserve Technical Advisory Committee, which consisted of scientists from both state and federal agencies, as well as the academic community. Committee members evaluated application information, visited the area and reviewed information from the public.

Following the recommendations made by the committee, commissioner Sutherland agreed with the reserves and the DNR is now developing management plans for each sites. This process involves a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), as well as public input on issues that should be considered in the SEPA process. A meeting for the Cherry Point site will be held to discuss impacts of current and future uses, and actions will be recommended to ensure that the site serve its purpose as a state aquatic reserve.

�That meeting will look at how we can meet conservation goals,� said Todd Meyers, of DNR public affairs, adding a meeting date will be soon, but has yet to be scheduled. �We need to look at 20 years � even 90 years � down the road and look at how things change. How does it affect the reserve? That�s what we need to identify.�

Other reserves

The Vashon/Maury Island in south Puget Sound includes a spawning area for a major stock of herring in Quartermaster Harbor and along the southeastern shore of Maury Island. Quartermaster Harbor is identified by the Audubon Society as an important bird area and an important area for wintering marine birds, especially western grebes.

Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands includes valued aquatic habitat, which is adjacent to the island�s upland areas that are in excellent condition. DNR currently manages 4,800 acres (or 90 percent) of the island as part of the natural areas program. Aquatic reserve status would provide opportunities for coordinating management of the uplands, tidelands and bedlands of Cypress Island, in addition to outlying islands near the reserve proposal, and Cone, Strawberry and Towhead islands.

Fidalgo Bay, near Anacortes, is a shallow bay dominated by extensive eelgrass beds and highly productive mudflats. The area is used by herring that spawn in the bay, by migrating marine birds that winter in the area, and resident fish and wildlife year-round.

The DNR manages about 2.4 million acres of state-owned aquatic lands throughout the state. State-owned aquatic lands are managed for the benefit of all citizens of the state by providing for public use, renewable resources, navigation and commerce and environmental protection.

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