The popular volunteer training program that prepares participants for summer beach, boat and education work was held remotely this year due to the pandemic.

Despite it marking the first time Salish Sea Stewards trainees didn’t get their feet muddy or hands wet during the program, 22 new volunteers completed the 40 hours of lessons last week.

They join the roster of now hundreds of Salish Sea Stewards at the ready for projects including kayaking to monitor kelp, digging to monitor shellfish, seining beaches to evaluate marine life at restoration sites and staffing the visitor center at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

New Salish Sea Steward Jen Coslor is looking forward to taking her new knowledge to familiar beaches of Samish Island to contribute to ongoing research.

“My family has lived there for several generations, and I think the ecosystem is so critical to those of us who live here,” Coslor said, adding that issues of water quality, microplastics and wildlife health in the bays around the island are of interest to her. “It all directly impacts our community.”

Coslor and her 21 classmates are more than ready to get to work, but due to continued concern over COVID-19, they still have to wait.

“That’s the unfortunate part. People are so eager to make a difference,” said Padilla Bay Education Coordinator Susan Wood, who helped organize the digital training.

“Right now, there are almost no volunteer opportunities that are approved, ready to go,” Wood said. “A lot of organizations (stewards work with) are putting procedures and policies in place to make sure there is safe social distancing and all of that.”

The hope is that volunteers can enter the field in mid-summer, and any necessary hands-on training can be done for the Salish Sea Stewards assigned to that type of work.

Wood said it was a disappointment not to be able to take the whole class to the beach during the March through June program this year.

“The pieces that we didn’t get to ... involved probably four different days in the field,” she said.

Usually the program includes weekly lectures at the Padilla Bay reserve and hands-on training to look at forage fish eggs under microscopes and to use a net called a seine to document marine life in the shoreline area of Fidalgo Bay.

“We would have had some cool hands-on things to try, but this is the next best thing,” Phillip Dionne of the state Department of Fish & Wildlife said while giving a lecture about forage fish over Zoom.

Smelt and sand lance are important prey for other wildlife and a good indicator of ecosystem health because of their important place in the food web, as well as their vulnerability to the impacts of poor water quality, climate change, habitat loss and overfishing.

They are just one piece of the marine health puzzle discussed during the Salish Sea Stewards training. Other topics ranged from crabs and clams to whales and water quality.

“It really struck us how everything is connected,” new Salish Sea Steward Sherry Johnson said.

Skagit Marine Resources Committee Coordinator Tracy Alker said the committee, which created the program now led by the Padilla Bay reserve, was impressed with the quick adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group was also glad to see volunteers commit to the remote offering.

“The number of participants that persevered and stayed with the program despite all of the changes and challenges was truly inspirational and a testament to the importance of marine conservation in our local community,” Alker said.

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

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