New Research this Spring at Smith & Minor Island Aquatic Reserve

Click here to hear about Rick’s Excellent Kelp Harvesting Adventure!

New/More/Better Adventures Coming to Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve

The subject of our last 3 committee meetings of 2015 revolved around analysis and presentation of our data from this last year and planning where to direct our efforts in 2016. Sam Payne, AmeriCorps volunteer for the DNR, gave a great presentation of the data we collected last summer measuring kelp growth and the affect of harvesting on the habitat. We also looked at data we collected on harvester activities and behaviors. Linda Rhodes, from Island MRC, gave us an update on the bull kelp survey that the MRC conducted last summer using kayaks and GPSs. We were curious about this project because we are looking for possible ways these two data sets might overlap and complement each other. We are planning on continuing our kelp harvesting research next summer.
We also discussed next steps to implement the disturbance survey which will monitor the human uses of the shores of the Reserve. This study will examine the interactions people are having with wildlife starting in winter and continuing through the summer. Volunteers will monitor beaches for 30 minutes and record activities they observe on a field card and subsequently upload the data onto a database. The monitoring is intended to provide a baseline for the types and amount of uses in and adjacent the reserve as well as describing the variety of disturbances to wildlife and to detect patterns. Acquired baseline information will be used for development of the Reserve. If you are interested in volunteering, send me, Rick Baker an e-mail at
All the data collection sheets, instructions and information about the survey is on the WWS webpage (, click on “Citizen Science, S&M Islands Aquatic Reserve”. We will be scheduling training and rolling all this out in January. The committee is formulating its vision for the Reserve, future citizen science projects and next year’s outreach effort, lots of exciting new developments. See you next month!
Below is a working list of the committee’s goals for next year. If you would like to participate contact

Educational Outreach

  • Create Educational Display for Outreach, Include S&M Jeopardy Game
  • Develop, Design, Install Interpretive Signs
  • Brochure about Smith & Minor – Update Existing Brochure, Print More
  • Community Aquatic Reserve Watch – Engage Locals, Home Owners Above Reserve, Inform  
  •      About AR, Enlist Participation.

Citizen Science

  • Kelp Monitoring And Public Outreach to Harvesters – Revise, Next Spring
  • Disturbance Monitoring – Collect Data – Interactions Between Public & Wildlife.

Public Events

  • Penn Cove Mussel Festival – Public Outreach
  • Penn Cove Water Festival – Public Outreach

 Smith and Minor (S&M) Islands lie a few miles off the western shore of Whidbey Island near Oak Harbor and are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a National Wildlife Refuge. The Islands lie within the 36,300 acres of tidelands and seafloor habitat of the S&M Islands Aquatic Reserve which are managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Being the largest kelp forest in the Puget Sound, much of the kelp lies west of S&M Islands accessible only by boat and is not harvested. To the east of S&M Islands, within the tidelands and along the west side of Whidbey Island are significant kelp beds which are harvested recreationally. The management plan for the Reserve states that there are over 300 species of algae and that the kelp beds are one of the most important aquatic habitats protected in the S&M Islands Aquatic Reserve. In addition, the habitat is home to many spawning fish and invertebrates, such as surf smelt making it prime habitat for juvenile salmon. It has the only ground nesting bald eagle site, and has the only nesting tufted puffins in Puget Sound.

Smith-Minor-Aquatic-Reserve       Aquatic reserves are zones of the seas and coasts where wildlife is protected from damage and disturbance and are widely promoted as a means of protecting biodiversity, achieving more natural population structures and managing exploited fish populations. As steward of 2.6 million acres of state-owned aquatic lands, the DNR has and is establishing aquatic reserves throughout the state to protect important native ecosystems. It is an effort to promote the preservation, restoration, and enhancement of state-owned aquatic lands that are of special educational, scientific, or environmental interest. As part of this effort DNR created the Aquatic Reserve Community Science Program which consists of partnerships between non-profit organizations like Whidbey Watershed Stewards and DNR at each of the Reserves. At present the seven Reserves are at Cherry Point, Fidalgo Bay, Cypress Island, Smith and Minor Island, Protection Island, Maury Island and Nisqually Reach.

       At S&M Aquatic Reserve all kelp harvesting occurs in 1-2 feet of water, in the spring months by recreational harvesters at minus tides (-2 and lower). Harvesters must have a shellfish/seaweed license, and the regulations for harvesting are specified on their license and posted on the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) webpage. Over the years the numbers of people harvesting during the spring months has increased. Casual comments from other beach goers, beach combers suggest that maybe the kelp is not always harvested sustainably which could be contributing to the degradation of the overall habitat. The scientific community weighs in that little research has ever been done on the effect of kelp harvesting on this critical habitat.

         Whidbey Watershed Stewards is facilitating a Community Science effort with support from DNR and the scientific expertise, technical support of Island County Marine Resource Committee (MRC). Two research strands will be developed and applied to this project. First, we will be gathering data on the amount of harvestable kelp within the Reserve, its abundance and rate of growth through the summer. We will also attempt to assess the amount of kelp being removed by harvesters during this time period. Second, we will be collecting social data, observing harvesting methods, general knowledge of sustainable harvesting practices. It is our hope that our presence there conducting research, gathering data will lead to us providing information on the importance of sustainable harvesting to participants in an non-threatening way.

If this sounds interesting and you would like to get involved, please contact Rick Baker at:

By Rick Baker