At the end of April, SeaChange was hosted by the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy (ThINC) to facilitate two-day pilot workshop on Conserving Nearshore Marine Habitats. SeaChange is in the process of raising funds to provide more workshops like these and to develop a hands-on and online training program to help communities increase protection of nearshore ecosystems including, kelp forests, eelgrass meadows, forage fish spawning areas and marine riparian zones.
Twenty-nine participants from five southern Gulf Island conservancies, Lyackson First Nation, Penelakut First Nation, SeaWatch Society, Vancouver Aquarium, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Gulf Islands National Parks Reserve, and local citizens participated in this hands-on, feet wet symposium. We spent a rainy afternoon on the beach learning about eelgrass ecology and its functions for species such as rockfish, and about the spawning habits of those small critical fish, surfsmelt and sandlance, native vegetation bordering the shores and how to observe impacts on the shore from climate changes.
Off-island participants were graciously billeted and fed by islanders and ThINC volunteers worked tirelessly to provide lunch, dinner and delicious treats. They really raised the bar for exceptional hosting!
Despite the overcast cool weather we were able to infuse the first day with some fun.
Ramona de Graaf (SeaWatch Society) engaged the group in a forage fish frenzy to warm our bodies up and getting us to think like surf smelt, sand lance and herring. Surf smelt and Pacific sand lance spawn on sandy beaches and herring spawns a little further off shore in kelp or eelgrass habitat. Sand lance are the most abundant forage fish in the Northeast Pacific and are critical food fish for fish, birds and mammals. Chinook salmon know that sand lance hide in sandy substrates and will slide their heads along the surface to scare the little fish from hiding and have a feast!
Andy Lamb and Sharon Jeffery shared their extensive knowledge on how rockfish and salmon use eelgrass and kelp forests. Rockfish populations in the Salish Sea are declining, with 2 species at risk, due largely to overfishing (learn more). Copper, Black, Bocaccio and Vermilion rockfish are more commonly found in eelgrass beds. Interestingly, juvenile tiger rock fish use seaweed rafts as habitat until they drift ashore!
Sharon’s masters research documented that 30-55 species of fish use eelgrass meadows, including shiner perch, bay pipefish, tubesnout and juvenile salmon. Studies have shown that juvenile salmon that utilize eelgrass beds before migrating to deeper waters have more weight gain than salmon that did not have access.
Nikki Wright (SeaChange) talked about the ecology and biology of eelgrass meadows. While holding already uprooted shoots, shared, with Cynthia Durance (Precision Identification Inc.), our Eelgrass Queen and mentor, how eelgrass rhizomes (underground stems) stabilizes sediments and sequesters carbon and about the blades providing nursery habitat and food factory for the nearshore food web.
Leanna Boyer (SeaChange) shared her enthusiasm for beach wrack! Wondering what that is? It is all of that seaweed, eelgrass, twigs, leaves etc. tossed up on the beach during a high tide. Why is it so exciting? This wrack not only provides habitat and food for beach dwellers such as beach hoppers it is an important ecological link between marine and terrestrial food webs. A Raincoast study confirms what First Nations have observed for thousands of years. Bears (and other land mammals) consume herring row on seaweed washed up as wrack on the beach. They then take those nutrients far into the forest. Insects and dead plant material that drop from healthy vegetated shorelines in turn feed marine organisms, including juvenile salmon fattening up before migration.
Ricky Belanger completed the beach presentations with a conversation on climate change impacts on shorelines and the kinds of actions that can be taken to increase resiliency in the face of rising sea levels, increase storm intensity and upland development impacts.
After a delicious dinner at the community centre Anu Rao introduced the group to the Shoreline Sensitivity to Sea Level Rise mapping model developed by BC Parks. Island groupings of participants used this information in conjunction with other mapping layers to brainstorm strategies for protecting nearshore habitats through conservation and education actions.
On Sunday, Florence James from Penelakut First Nation shared knowledge about traditional use of nearshore ecosystems with examples of how different harvesting techniques preserved the health and populations of plants and marine life. Nikki Wright presented the idea of forming a nearshore network to increase communication and increase our collective capacity to protect and restore nearshore ecosystems.
After updates on seastar wasting disease, Vancouver Aquarium’s marine habitat restoration guide and the Gulf Islands National Park reserve monitoring program, participants headed to the beach to learn methods for forage fish beach spawning.
The workshop was inspiring to say the least! If you are interested in this workshop and hosting one for your community contact us.