ANACORTES — Each week a group of volunteers collects beach samples from the Fidalgo Bay shoreline. The goal is to help the state identify when and where surf smelt spawning is successful along the rim of the bay.

“Our purpose is to document — for as many years as we can manage it — the status here, the baseline,” volunteer Pete Haase said.

Haase was one of three Anacortes residents who spent Tuesday morning walking the beach and gathering sediment.

Haase and Gordon Sjogren have been involved with the Fidalgo Bay intertidal forage fish spawning survey program since it started in 2012. About three dozen people participate, and the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee sponsors the program.

The bay has been protected as a state Department of Natural Resources aquatic reserve since 2000. It is one of seven aquatic reserves in the state that conserve a collective 2.6 million acres of unique nearshore habitat.

One of the things volunteers have noted over the last two years is a lack of shade, leaving eggs exposed to the sun during warm weather, said state Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Reserves Program Manager Roberta “Birdie” Davenport.

“I would like to see trees, shade, after all those eggs we see dried out in the summer,” volunteer Cheryl Buchanan said.

Buchanan started volunteering this year after moving to Anacortes from San Diego to retire in a milder climate.

“It started out as — because I just moved to this area — ‘I’m going to save the eagles and the whales.’ But the more I learned, the more I realized it starts here. To save them, you have to start at this level,” Buchanan said.

The volunteer program includes 7,500 feet of shoreline. It covers two sections of beach: one from the edge of the state Department of Ecology’s study area at the former Custom Plywood site to the Fidalgo Bay Resort, and another on the other side of the bay.

The volunteer sampling is supplementary to work Natural Resources staff do in the area, Davenport said. And Fidalgo Bay is one piece of a state Department of Fish and Wildlife effort to document forage fish survival statewide.

“In a lot of places they are declining, so it’s a very important ecosystem measuring tool to understand the health of the overall Puget Sound, as well as individual sites like Fidalgo Bay,” Davenport said. “Forage fish are a keystone species … They are sort of, not at the very bottom of the food chain, but they are a key species that support salmon and all the way up to orcas.”

Fidalgo Bay volunteers collect several samples of sand each time they hit the beach. One sample of sand, and potentially eggs, from each site is sent to Natural Resources for analysis.

So far, the fish appear to be summer spawners. For the third winter season, volunteers have come up with very few eggs, Haase said.

On days like Tuesday, when they brave the cold and don’t spot any eggs with the naked eye, they remind themselves that it’s all part of the process of collecting a solid baseline of data.

“When we come out here and find nothing we just remember that zero is data,” Haase said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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