WSA Works on Healthy Reefs

WSA Works on Healthy Reefs

The Importance of Healthy Reefs

The importance of healthy reef structures cannot be understated: from reefs spring life, and from that life, many benefit. Whether for scientific curiosity, nourishment, or excitement, humans interact with reefs in many ways, and in kind, environmentally conscious humans do their best to safeguard these crucial, delicate environments. But environmental changes can spark at a moment’s notice, and when necessary, concerned citizens can meet these challenges with a combination of expediency and strategy.

By John Tapley,, Editor of Scuba H2O Adventures Magazine

Such is the case of the Maury Island Pier piling removal within Puget Sound, Washington. In early September, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducted an operation to remove toxic creosote pilings from the pier, and Washington divers met this situation by carefully removing and relocating aquatic flora and fauna to help maintain the environment. This action was pre-empted by DNR in late August, when project manager Jordanna Black contacted Washington Scuba Alliance (WSA) President Jim Trask, notifying him of the upcoming changes. Trask quickly gathered his forces, which included Captain Rick Myers of Bandito Charters and Rus Higley, managing instructor for the Marine Science and Technology Center (MaST) at Highline College in Des Moines. The parties pooled their resources, and on September 3, 14 representatives from these groups delicately removed and relocated nearly 1,500 marine animals using shore diving, kayak diving, and deep diving techniques. This marked a signal for success: not only for the wildlife, but for an increased interactivity between the local diving community and DNR.

Later, on September 20, Trask met with Higley, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Outreach Coordinator Janna Nichols, WSA committee member Randy Williams, and Friends of Saltwater State Park Committee Chairperson Rhoda Green to formulate a draft document on safely removing creatures from structures considered to be up for removal by DNR standards.

Currently spanning five pages, the document highlights ways in which WSA, affiliates, and individuals can safely remove and relocate creatures to nearby areas. The document covers the logistics of animal removal, including which methods instruments to use on which species. For example, swimming anemones can be startled off a structure by hovering a predator species in close proximity; clinging anemones can be safely removed with something as simple as a butter knife; seastars and urchins require stealth following by an abrupt approach.

According to Higley, these techniques are critical to ensure each creature can be safely removed:

“The idea is that if divers in the general public are going to help DNR, they need to know how to do it. Removing life from pilings or tires isn’t as simple as ‘yanking it off and dropping it’. What resources do we need? Who can do this? How can we keep people safe? How do we save more animals?”

The document also describes the best ways to relocate animals, including where to place them (nearby to minimize the transference of disease), how to place them (in a standard position), and which type of substance to place them on (as close to its original habitat as possible). This portion of the document also highlights prioritization of a relocation point prior to an activity: checking in at local aquarium or at another spot for vacancy in advance.

Studying the behavior of specific animals also plays a large role in this process, as Higley elaborates:

“A lot of times when you yank the pilings there is no suitable habitat to put them on. Most divers don’t think that way – they can be amazing or take amazing photography – but they may not know an animal’s life cycle or how it interacts with [another]. If you move some animals to an area they shouldn’t be, you may create a feeding bonanza.”

Relocating a distressed critter is just half of the success, though: in order to achieve victory, the project at large will require dedicated surveyors to assess whether or not a relocation project is fruitful. The document goes over methods to monitor selected areas, including using transect frames to create snapshots, which can be taken every few months to ensure accuracy.

Proper monitoring is one part dedication and one part location, and it’s not unusual for multiple dive sites to be clustered into one, as Higley elaborates:

“You need to know what’s there before – not just one visit, but multiples throughout the year – because of the natural cycle of animals. A one-time snapshot is a start, but doesn’t really prove anything. There’s no longitudinal studies: Maury Island is all considered one reef so data isn’t refined enough to determine how life changed at the pilings or on the rock reef.”

Beyond educating the public through the document itself, organizers hope to produce a media and information campaign that will share the biggest highlights. By utilizing tools such as social media and video sharing, volunteers can illustrate the ideas found within the document and spread its benefits to a wider audience.

The best practices document, according to Trask, is ever evolving and is likely to change and grow as more parties join the initiative. WSA is more than willing to work with government officials, local divers, marine biologists, charter operators, and everyone else involved. The organization is looking for local divers who are interested in volunteering their time with the project: whether they survey hot areas, remove critters, spread the word, or create media on the subject.

Critter removal is a multi-faceted engagement, however, and Trask recommends a certain kind of diver for this task:

“We’re thinking it will be best for advanced open water divers or above. Their buoyancy [control] will be better, their skills will be more defined to where they feel safe underwater. They’ll get caught up in removing the critters so we want experienced divers who feel comfortable doing it.”

With changes come sacrifice, and while the removal of toxic structures will provide long-term benefits to the Puget Sound region, beloved dive sites such as the pier at Maury Island will be forever impacted. Humanity’s involvement in installing and removing reef structures is a give and take. 

Green understands this dilemma well, and is currently working with DNR and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Services (WDFW) to remove tire reefs from Saltwater State Park, and replace the toxic habitat with safer substrate. She hopes to use the best practices document when the time is right:

“Over time we have put down structures, which have created habitat (breakwaters, piers, marinas, CSO pipelines, etc.) that are part of our normal infrastructure. We have also removed habitats, which can never be replaced. Any structure in the water – whether it be a pipeline, a bathtub, a ship, or a pile of rocks – is habitat for some type of creature and creates a different type of ecosystem in itself. We will miss these dive sites to a degree – some of the upper structure will not be there – but they will attract a different set of creatures.”

“WSA will look at who will be affected by this,” says Trask. “There will be sites where there’s nothing to put the critters on. Where we can transfer to a site we will, and hopefully make it a more prolific site. The boulder field was full of life after the transfer. We have to be the stewards of Washington waters and hopefully we won’t affect dive charter operators or shore divers in any serious way.”

Looking forward, Trask wishes to expand the document to cover many types of habitation, and is inviting DNR and WDFW to participate; but for now the involved parties are focusing on tire reefs and pilings similar to those previously found off Maury Island:

“The pilings and tire reefs will be major sites, though there will be other areas that need to come out. For instance, at Redondo [Beach] we are planning on putting in a rocky reef once it is approved by DNR. There is a lot of junk that needs to be pulled out – people have thrown out all sorts of things down there that have created vertical structures – and [sealife is] growing on those; but they’re junk and we don’t want to have junk in the water.

“This is an opening salvo for what will hopefully be a better partnership with DNR. The hands have reached toward each other and they see what we are capable of, and what we want to do. I’m excited to [include] DNR as one more partner in our plan.”

For more information on WSA, The MaST Center and Friends of Saltwater State Park, visit www.wascuba.org,www.mast.highline.eduand www.facebook.com/SWSPDesMoinesWA, respectively. Follow Puget Sound marine life happenings with the REEF Pacific Northwest Critter Watchers at www.pnwscuba.com/critterwatchers.