Our truly unique Aquatic Reserves system: Safeguarding key shorelines in Washington

May 7, 2019

By Lilya Jaeren, Aquatic Reserves Monitoring and Stewardship Coordinator

On my very first day as the Aquatic Reserves AmeriCorps member at RE Sources, I was a bit in over my head.

I attended the biannual Fidalgo Bay Management Plan Stakeholder meeting in Anacortes, where 25 people representing local and state governments, NGOs, tribal nations, refineries, citizen groups, and schools met to talk about how to best manage the Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve — one of eight such reserves statewide.

Without background information or context, I didn’t understand everything that was discussed. But I was so impressed by how many different stakeholders were invited to the table. The Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve brought together a diverse group of people to collaboratively discuss management and protection of the reserve.

This approach, as well as the reserves themselves, is something special. Washington protects its particularly important waterways with a system called the Aquatic Reserves, which is the only system of its kind in the United States. Here’s a bit about why these protected areas matter, and how you can be a part of keeping Washington’s waters a haven for important species, our economy, and cultural heritage.

Educational, economic, cultural, and ecological benefits

Established in 2004, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) now has eight Aquatic Reserves throughout the state that support an abundance of diverse wildlife. These Aquatic Reserves have been selected for their ecological, educational, and scientific importance within our state’s aquatic ecosystems. They hold cultural significance for many communities, especially Indigenous nations.

The unique purpose of an aquatic reserve is not only to protect and restore its species and native habitat, but also to inspire stewardship and create education and outreach opportunities within the communities and stakeholder groups they involve. The reserves face many environmental challenges — derelict fishing gear which continues to kill fish, vessel traffic, water pollution, habitat destruction and shoreline modification. Monitoring and learning about these aquatic ecosystems and the species they support is key to better understanding how we can protect our state’s waters through legislation and management actions. Just visiting an aquatic reserve deepens your understanding of the environments we are fighting to protect and creates a greater sense of connection and purpose.

The reserves are not only important to wildlife, but offer scenic beauty, traditional uses like shellfish harvesting, education and outreach opportunities, and economic benefits (recreational fishing, shellfishing, and waterfowl hunting are allowed in some reserves).

I have been fortunate to work with the Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserves and the dedicated volunteers who monitor them throughout the year. Volunteers are at the core of environmental stewardship, truly driving community involvement at these reserves. It has been inspiring to me how passionately our volunteers work to conserve and protect these vital aquatic habitats. Seasonal annual monitoring at these two reserves includes intertidal, avian, and forage fish surveying. There’s also valuable data collected on ocean acidification, sea stars, and oysters. This produces immensely important information that help scientists analyze and track species and ecosystem health, which helps influence policy decisions and restoration efforts.

Getting involved

Getting involved at the aquatic reserves is easier than you might think! The volunteer bodies that help state agencies maintain and study the reserves, Citizen Stewardship Committees, meet once a month and work to protect and implement management actions at each reserve through environmental monitoring, citizen education, and collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Monitoring events also occur year round, and you don’t need previous scientific experience to be a great volunteer! Contact HeatherC@re-sources.org if you are interested in getting outside and helping at Cherry Point or Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve or if you are interested in attending a Citizen Stewardship Committee meeting. Visit www.aquaticreserves.org for more information about each Aquatic Reserve and the state-wide DNR program.