Study peers into North Kitsap waters

KINGSTON — On a beach north of Kingston Tuesday, Suquamish Tribe intern Molly Jackson held a freshly netted shiner perch and pointed out where a parasitic copepod had burrowed inside the fish.

The perch parasites are one of several phenomena a research group, led by Suquamish Tribe biologists, has recorded in a three-year beach seining study of marine life along North Kitsap shores. The parasitic copepod will grow inside the aorta of the perch, eventually causing its gills to rupture.

“It’s straight out of the movie ‘Alien,’” Suquamish Salmon Recovery Manager Paul Dorn said. “It’s something we watch. We don’t know what it means, and we don’t know if it’s getting worse.”

Field work for the study ended Tuesday, with a final beach seining trip between Kingston and Foul Weather Bluff. Results from the study along with photos of marine life will be made available to the public online.

The study, funded by the Salmon Recovery Board and Pacific Coastal Salmon Funds, is providing some basic data on what species are commonly found in the near-shore waters.

“It’s the first time we’ve taken a good look at this area,” Dorn said.

The researchers catalogued a rich variety of life and raised some troubling questions.

Along with the perch parasites, the researchers noted that many Pacific herring appeared sick and sent samples to a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration expert for study. The observation is disturbing because the herring are an important food source for salmon and birds, Dorn said.

They also found that a portion of salmon populations were feeding near the shorelines rather than leaving Puget Sound, a finding that corroborates other studies.

Dorn said North Kitsap research and an ongoing beach seining project on Bainbridge Island will help bring life to the Kitsap Nearshore Habitat Assessment, which surveyed the physical features of the coastline.

“It’s useful for anyone who wants to know what uses our near-shore environment,” Dorn said.

On Tuesday a research team composed of Dorn, and a crew of seven motored north out of foggy Apple Tree Cove in an aluminum landing craft.

Their first stop was a gravelly beach north of Pilot Point where freshwater seeps down from a wetland.

The group’s sampling technique is simple but strenuous.

A 100-foot long and six-foot tall seining net was stretched in an arc offshore parallel to the beach. Then group members began hauling on long ropes fastened to each end of the net, arduously dragging it toward shore.

As the net edged close to the beach, the haulers closed its ends together and began tightening the noose. Fish caught inside were funneled into a bag of fine mesh in the middle of the net where the researchers scooped them out into buckets.

The set at Pilot Point netted a smattering of Pacific herring, a bug-eyed starry flounder and small Coho salmon.

The volunteers measured and counted the fish in rapid succession before releasing them back in to the sound. Jackson noted debris in the water and beach condition.

The whole process took only about 15 minutes, and the team was ready to move north.

Over the next six hours the group made 11 more sets, stopping at regular sampling sites off Foulweather Bluff, Skunk Bay, Point No Point, Eglon and Appletree Point. None of the sets came up empty.

They netted all three common foraging fish: herring, sand lances and surf smelt. The trio spawn along the shoreline and are feasted on by salmon and birds. Flat-bodied starry flounder and English sole were regulars in the net, as were an array of sculpin. Sometimes the researchers plucked out translucent nudibranchs, which emitted a lemony smell.

While varied, the samples weren’t as large as they had been in the summer months, a sign the marine ecosystems are slowing for the winter.

Volunteer Becky Bressler recalled hauling in about 40,000 herring in a single set.

“We spend a half hour just counting in some places,” she said.

A rodent-faced fish netted near Eglon in one of the last sets, put a jubilant cap on the day. The ratfish, rarely found in shallow water, was the first the group had ever netted.

It was enough to send Jackson dashing for her camera.

“This is the coolest thing that has happened so far,” she said, after photographing her fill of the pallid fish.

North Kitsap’s shorelines are by no means pristine. But Dorn said compared to the heavily armored, urban east coast of Puget Sound, they are in relatively good shape.

He hopes the North Kitsap study shows there is plenty worth preserving.

“It’s important for landowners to know that there’s a lot of life along the coastline that we need to protect,” Dorn said.

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