ANACORTES — Experts from as far away as Rhode Island visited Anacortes on Saturday to share their knowledge of critters and plants that call the region home during the seventh annual Fidalgo Shoreline Academy.
The academy is a day-long event hosted by the local nonprofit Friends of Skagit Beaches.
The event aims to showcase research, inform the community about environmental issues and raise money through registration fees to support the nonprofit’s programs, volunteer Matt Kerschbaum said.
About 120 participants filed into the Northwest Educational Service District No. 189 building adjacent to Seafarers’ Memorial Park for this year’s lineup.
Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve lead scientist Jude Apple kicked off the event with a lecture about his ongoing research into blue carbon.
Blue carbon refers to the carbon stored in tidal areas such as the salt marshes in the Skagit River delta and the mudflats of Padilla Bay. Apple said understanding the effect of carbon storage in those areas is becoming increasingly important in connection with climate change.
“These coastal ecosystems are really great places for us to sequester, or store, carbon,” Apple said. “That black, sticky mud — that’s why marshes are so good at storing carbon.”
He said when driftwood, dead kelp or other material that is comprised of carbon gets buried in the sediment of coastal areas, it can remain trapped there for many years. That prevents it from breaking down and releasing carbon dioxide — the leading greenhouse gas that causes climate change — into the atmosphere.
Apple said he is involved in research at Padilla Bay and across the U.S. to determine how much carbon is stored in different coastal areas. The work aims to quantify the benefit and potential impact of developing those areas, which would release the stored carbon and further contribute to climate change.
Another area scientist, Frances Robertson of San Juan County, shared her research on the region’s minke whales.
Minkes are whales similar in size to orcas. Robertson said little is known about the whales in the Salish Sea.
“It’s quite amazing how little we really know about this species on this coast,” she said.
Robertson said she is part of a research team that has in recent years identified individual whales by their fins and coloring in an effort to track their movements and better understand the species.
One of those whales was tagged with a tracking device that enabled researchers to see where it went.
“It really showed us that these animals are tracking around the Salish Sea much more than we had imagined,” Robertson said.
Todd McLeish of Rhode Island has spent several years alongside those researching another area critter — the sea otters found throughout the Pacific Coast.
McLeish discussed some of that research and his recent book, “Return of the Sea Otter: The story of an animal that evaded extinction on the Pacific Coast,” during the event.
He said sea otters are the only marine mammals that don’t have blubber, the layer of fat that insulates seals and whales. Instead, they have 1 million hairs per square inch of their bodies — a dense fur coat that nearly led to their demise during the fur trade.
During the fur trade, the global otter population plummeted from about 250,000 to 1,000 before an international prohibition spared them in the early 1900s, McLeish said. Now, there are about 2,000 on the Washington coast alone, along with other thriving populations in California, Alaska and British Columbia.
They do still face threats, however, McLeish said.
Worldwide, the animals face the risk of oil spills, which could quickly kill them by damaging their fur coats that are crucial to their survival.
“A dime-size spot of oil on an otter’s coat is like a hole in your wet suit,” McLeish said. “One oil spill on the Olympic Coast here in Washington could wipe out our otter population really quickly.”
Other talks Saturday explored the world divers encounter beneath the surface in Puget Sound, the restoration of waterfront properties once used for industry such as pulp and paper mills, and observations of great blue herons in Skagit County.