Home sweet salmon home

Once upon a time Oak Harbor settlers thought the marshy area bordering Crescent Harbor would make good grazing land, so they diked off the tidal flow in an effort to push back the sea, a common practice in the settlement of the West Coast.

Perhaps they were emulating their native Netherlands, the land below sea level which exists solely because of the famous diking system. But, in the process of reclaiming the land they also blocked off what is considered to be an important salmon habitat.

Juvenile salmon could no longer take refuge in the calmer, nutrient rich waters of the estuary. While studies have not found any evidence of whether or not salmon migrating out from the Skagit River actually used the Crescent Harbor estuary, it is a prime location for such use.

When the Navy purchased the property as part of the Seaplane Base in the 1940s the grazing land was abandoned, but the barricades to salmon use have remained.

Ecologists, and many Oak Harbor school children, hope that will soon change.

Salmon habitat restoration work has been progressing for the past year and a half, thanks to a grant from the state and federally-funded Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The “Surf” grant as it is called, is administered by Island County and brings together the Navy, University of Washington Wetland Ecosystem Team and volunteer groups such as Oak Harbor School District students.

On a recent blustery afternoon North Whidbey Middle School students from Brenda Strothers’ 8th grade environmental science class braved the elements to reacquaint themselves with the area, which they had last visited in October.

“The purpose of this trip is to reconnect,” she told the students as they shivered in the raw weather conditions. “It’s to explore the area and refine your (scientific) question.”

Strothers’ class project got a boost recently when she was awarded one of 50 national $10,000 grants from Toyota, to be used for environmental science projects.

Strothers said the grant will enable the students to take the project from data collecting to analysis. When her class started the project they had very little equipment, and no money to buy what they needed.

Equipment she hopes to buy with the grant includes everything from water quality testing probeware that will download date directly to a Palm Pilot or graphing calculator to waders and fish nets.

Phillip and Lydia Sykes of Whidbey Wild Bird recently donated three pairs of binoculars and a spotting scope for the bird counters in the group, courtesy of the supplier Alpen.

Strothers said the equipment will be a boon to the estuary project, which is “above and beyond” regular science classes.

“I make it very clear to them: ‘This is extra work,’” Strothers said. “They have to be able to self-manage and be part of a team.”

Still, there are 27 to 30 students in the class, and more on a waiting list. Strothers stressed it is not a “gifted and talented” class, but is open to all students willing to do the work.

The class’ commitment to the project, perhaps tempered by a desire to get out of the classroom, was evident Friday.

Several groups headed for the beach, where crashing breakers made gathering plankton samples in a thin nylon net, or digging in the sand, challenging.

Other students headed inland, testing for salinity, taking brackish water samples or exploring the marsh’s vegetation and bird life.

John Phillips, ecologist for Navy Region Northwest, stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, joined the students to supervise their research progress and answer questions. He took over the project from its originator, Matt Klope.

Phillips said restoration work began in the Crescent Harbor estuary in 1996, when a tide gate, which blocked tidal flow, was permanently winched open. Navy Construction Battalion have also removed several earthen berms in the marsh, allowing water to flow more freely through the former cow pasture.

“The area has slowly been restoring itself, except for access to the harbor,” Phillips said.

A 36-inch, 300 foot-long culvert is the only link between the estuary and the harbor.

With a barnacle and mussel encrusted inner surface, “it’s a tough passage for salmon,” Phillips said.

This summer Navy crews will take out the culvert and install a “Bailey bridge,” more commonly used in field situations to facilitate troop passage where no bridge exists.

While the estuary restoration project has given many groups of Oak Harbor school children valuable field experience, Phillips said the environmental restoration work is also educational for the construction battalion, which is able to test equipment and techniques in a real life, but much less dangerous, situation.

Crews will also remove more interior berms, increase the water flow into the estuary, and enlarge the culverts around the sewage treatment plant in the marsh.

Restoring the estuary to its free-flowing state has not been an operational problem for NAS Whidbey, as no operations are performed in that area that would be affected.

“Whenever you can do a restoration project that has little or no impact on operations, it’s a win-win situation,” Phillips said.

While there are no juvenile salmon in the estuary now, Phillips said there are plenty of them in the harbor.

Research shows that migrating salmon tend to hang around deltas and pocket wetlands, Phillips said, with wetlands bearing the brunt of development and destruction of habitat.

Lake Hancock is an example of a once-blocked estuary that has been returned to its natural state, while Dugualla Bay is an example of an estuary that is still blocked by a dike, which protects farmland but prevents salmon passage.

Dugualla Bay is being investigated by an advisory board, but for now, Oak Harbor students still have a lot to learn at Crescent Harbor.

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