BOWMAN BAY — Waves rolled onto the bay’s pebble beach Thursday afternoon as a group gathered to talk about how a 500-foot stretch of the shoreline has changed.
Representatives from environment organizations and government agencies were there to celebrate the transformation of the Deception Pass State Park beach, on the southwest side of Fidalgo Island.
“This has really transformed over the last year. It’s amazing,” Northwest Straits Foundation Executive Director Caroline Gibson said.
Northwest Straits, State Parks, the Skagit Marine Resources Committee and the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group partnered to restore the beach, which forage fish such as surf smelt use as spawning grounds.
Surf smelt are a key part of the marine food chain that includes salmon and orca whales.
The beach has come a long way since work on it started about a year ago, and it will continue to be shaped by the tides.
A large part of the restoration project involved removing boulders placed along the beach in the 1940s to protect a facility the state Department of Fish & Wildlife built to study and raise hatchery fish.
The boulders, called bulkheads or riprap, serve to prevent a natural sandy beach from forming.
“They built a rock wall to protect all of those developments, harming the very things they were trying to study,” said Jack Hartt, park manager for Deception Pass State Park. “Well, we all learn as we go, don’t we?”
Signs placed at the beach as part of the restoration project describe the history of the beach and how it is expected to rebuild itself.
Since removing the boulders from 500 feet of shoreline, adding 1,080 tons of sand and gravel to the beach and planting vegetation in the area, a new beach has already begun taking shape. The tides have left pieces of wood, seaweed and other materials on the beach that provide habitat and food for fish and birds.
Park visitors can also more easily access the water.
Hartt remembers visiting the beach as a child, and being blocked from the water by the mass of rocks.
“It was that way until last year,” he said. “Now my granddaughter comes off that playground, runs down to the beach right onto the beach, and that’s the way it should be.”
Peter Heffelfinger, who raised his children in the Anacortes area, said he remembers how they had to climb over the rocks to get to the water.
“It was industrial, really,” he said. “You didn’t have the sense that it was a living beach. It was really inaccessible.”
During the celebration, Heffelfinger saw two women walking along the beach. One was pushing a stroller.
“This is how it’s supposed to work,” he said.
The women, Carrie Hopkins of Lake Stevens and Shannon Markley of Alaska, said they were impressed with the beauty and ease of access at the beach.
They were with 15-month-old Cory Hopkins, who was carrying a piece of driftwood. The women said they felt it was a safe beach for the youngster to explore.
“Locals have a lot of pride for this place,” Carrie Hopkins said.
Hartt said in addition to his own attachment to the project, he has heard a lot of excitement from park visitors about the restoration work.
“It’s in my mind a whole different experience walking out here,” Eric Watilo, northwest region manager for State Parks, said while looking out at the water. “Before it was an abrupt rock edge. Now it’s more park-like.”
Still, the underlying purpose of the project is to benefit wildlife.
“Riprap is a barrier for people, but it’s also a barrier for wildlife that live here. It’s a disconnect,” Northwest Straits Foundation Nearshore Program Manager Lisa Kaufman said.
Removing the boulders from the beach and adding plants along the shoreline is expected to help the forage fish and salmon in Bowman Bay.
The plants provide habitat for insects, which young salmon eat before they are big enough to eat other fish, Kaufman said.
The $226,350 project was paid for with grant money from various state, federal and regional agencies and groups interested in restoring habitat in Puget Sound.
The nonprofit Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, Fish & Wildlife and volunteer citizen scientists are now monitoring the beach to document how the habitat is changing and how it is being used by wildlife.