Warming waters threaten Indian Island

Climate change is affecting the whole world – even a small island nestled in the waters of East Sound.

Since 2009, Kwiaht has been monitoring wildlife and plants on and around Indian Island. The nonprofit conservation biology laboratory celebrated seven years of protection and study efforts at Orcas Center on Nov. 17.

“We need to start thinking about how we can keep these ecosystems alive,” said Kwiaht Director Russel Barsh. “It’s beginning to be clear what is going on.”

Barsh said that climate change was the likely culprit for changes happening at Indian Island. The sea stars are retreating to deeper water to avoid being dried out by the higher temperatures; fewer small animals are on and under the rocks; and the changing fish community are all indicators of something big.

But before that conclusion was reached, the audience heard student presentations.

“I’m really here to honor the amazing, amazing stewardship you all (Kwiaht staff and volunteers) put into it,” said David Turnoy, who was the host of the evening. “Thank you for what you do. It’s amazing and it’s really important.”

Turnoy called the organization the “pied pipers” of natural resources, before introducing the three student projects.

High school students Berdie Greening and Kataya Rain worked with Barsh to research how long detergents stay on marine plastics. The specific focus was on endocrine disrupting detergents. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, endocrine disruptors are “chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife.”

“These students tackled a question that has been puzzling marine scientists,” said Barsh. The students were unable to present their findings in person but had video recorded the entire experiment that was played back for the audience as a time lapse.

The results of the testing were that the floating marine plastic was positive for endocrine disrupting detergents. These detergents could potentially shed off the plastic at any time causing a hazard for wildlife that may ingest it. Barsh said the study by the students can be the stepping stones for a more exhaustive research project done by professional scientists.

In April, Greening and Rain won first place at the 16th annual Funhouse Science Fair for their study.

Following the video, middle schooler Sofia Fleming presented a slideshow of a research project she and fellow student Emma Thoron conducted. This was Fleming’s fourth major science project with Kwiaht over the past two years.

The question the students set out to answer was “which bay is more polluted, Orcas’ Fishing Bay or Lopez’s Fisherman’s Bay.”

Fleming and Rain, with the help of Barsh, collected 49 steamer clams total from the two locations and tested them using the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay method of testing the clams’ blood for contaminants. The discovered results indicated that Fishing Bay is more polluted than Fisherman Bay.

The third, and final, presentation was given by Arla Sutton, who, along with Izie Janececk, Willow White, Violet Scott and Uma McMurray, proposed and initiated the construction of a rain garden to filter stormwater runoff from the high school parking lot. She presented a slideshow of the design process and the creation of the garden.

Following the students, Barsh gave an annual report of the research at Indian Island. He noted that water has been remaining warmer than normal by historical standards and tourist visitation is up by 50 percent.

“Our public lands … are all getting a much heavier amount of pressure than they have in the past,” said Barsh. “How much does each of these things affect the island?”

He said the eelgrass meadow is in decline, however, the ochre sea stars have rebounded. The crab diversity is declining, however, the fish diversity is shifting. The question remains, he said, what exactly is causing these changes?

During Kwiaht’s annual count, seagrasses were measured at the -1-foot tide (the normal low tide level) and a -3-foot tide (a less common, much more dramatic low tide). The study showed that the deeper seagrass was doing more poorly than its shallow water counterpart, a decline Kwiaht has observed over the past seven years. The imbalance suggests that the eelgrass in deeper water is not getting sufficient sunlight for photosynthesis.

“It’s statistically very interesting,” said Barsh. “It suggests that there is a force pushing this that is a continuous stress on our eelgrass. What can that be?”

Brash talked about sea stars, primarily the ochre stars, which he noted were all well hydrated; they dry out when they’re stressed. The stars are making a comeback after a sharp decline that struck in 2014. One sea star that was a staple of Indian Island was an ochre named Bertha who returned year after year. But in 2015, Bertha did not show up.

“We’re not seeing them at all in the intertidal zone anymore,” Barsh said. “Water is essential, temperature is an enemy.”

He then moved on to the crab population, noting that there has been a noticeable change in the diversity of the species on the island. Crustaceans that frequent the waters in Fishing Bay include green shore crabs, flat-top porcelain crabs, black-clawed crabs and purple shore crabs.

“We’re seeing much fewer of two of our four bioindicator crab species,” said Barsh. “If it is being driven by temperature then we can expect it to continue going down.”

In 2016, bay pipefish reached peak reproductive season a full month earlier than it had in the previous five years. Barsh said that shiner perch are giving birth a month earlier than they had before.

“Bay pipefish are probably our most enjoyable indicator,” he said, adding that there is no trend indicating an incline or decline in their population. “You hold it, it looks back at you and doesn’t freak out.”

In 2011 and 2013, Kwiaht counted a broader variety and higher numbers of fish. The tube snout population is declining but striped perch have appeared within the last three years.

“There is no evidence that this is an increase in diseases,” Barsh said. “That’s not what’s driving this. At least not yet.”

Moving on to clams, he began with a breakdown of the three types of clams that inhabit the bay. Steamer clams like rough sand and prefer to live in either coarse sand or pea gravel and macoma clams prefer mud. Steamer clams are decreasing in population and macomas are increasing.

“The smoking gun is there,” said Barsh. “The substrate is becoming muddier.”

The ages of the clams are a good indicator of the change, with steamers being around 9-10 years old, butter clams averaging over 10 years old and macomas being about 3-5 years old.

“Is that what we want?” asked Barsh. “We know the beach is changing.”

This brought the conversation to pollution.

“We’re not looking at pollution levels high enough to impact the species,” said Barsh.

The blooming algae that frequented the water in spring is also not of any concern to Brash, who noted it shouldn’t be enough to harm animals or humans.

To follow what seemed like an endless stream of bad news, Barsh said a trail that Kwiaht established on the island has encouraged responsible use by the humans visiting and has resulted in a resurgence of wildflowers. This – in turn – resulted in an increase in nesting birds.

“Take a little bit of the pressure off and the birds are back!” chortled Barsh.

He posed the question of whether or not the change in the intertidal zone is being caused by humans.

“That’s something we need to seriously think about,” he said. “We need to have some way of containing and enjoying the island.”

An audience member asked how the Canada geese were doing, and Barsh said their numbers are down. It is unclear why; several geese eggs had been found abandoned on the island, but their numbers peaked about four years ago.

Barsh questioned whether stormwater runoff could be the cause of changes on the island, noting the thinning eelgrass at greater depths and the shift from hard shell clams to soft shell ones. It’s hard to tell, he explained, because there is no seasonal turbidity testing as of now. However, Kwiaht is looking into it.

“It’s something we really, really need to do,” said Barsh. “So much dirty water – turbid water – is getting focused in that little area.”

Join Kwiaht staff and volunteers as they present its annual marine-science event on Lopez, Jan. 21 at Lopez Center. More details to come in a later publication.