For decades, Washington waters have been plagued by toxicity caused by creosote-treated structures. Left to the wayside, these structures have slowly rotted into the waters, creating pilings of pollution that have had a substantial negative impact on the environment, especially in herring populations. On September 6, contractors with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began a project to remove old creosote-treated pilings from a derelict pier at the Maury Island Natural Area in south Puget Sound. This project, while beneficial in the long run, spelled disaster for the many creatures that inhabited the pilings, but thanks to the efforts of DNR representatives and local organizations such as the Washington Scuba Alliance (WSA), these fragile marine animals will continue to flourish just down the way.
By John Tapley, Editor of Scuba H2O Adventures Magazine
On August 31, WSA President Jim Trask received an email from DNR representatives with an invitation to relocate marine animals from the Maury Island site. In keeping with the organization’s mission to protect, preserve, and invigorate native marine ecosystems, Trask quickly sprang to action and assembled a team including WSA board members, Captain Rick Myers of Bandito Charters, and Rus Higley, managing instructor for the Marine Science Center at Highline College in Des Moines. Without a second to spare, the parties pooled their resources and began a plan of action.
On September 3, 14 representing WSA and the Marine Science Center gathered at the old Maury Island Natural Area pier to safely relocate its marine residents. Using plastic paint scrapers and butter knives, volunteers carefully removed the creatures, placed them in bags, and relocated them to a rocky reef north of the site and to a nearby dive site, theThree Bargeswreck. Divers conducted two dives each for a full day, and in the end were able to transfer close to 1,500 marine creatures, including sea stars, crabs, chitons, and cucumbers.
While the event proved to be a big success for the involved parties – and for the wildlife – some divers are concerned about the future status of Maury Island as a vacation destination. Since Washingtonians first donned their wetsuits and flippers, the waters off Maury Island have been a treasure box of fascination; and removing the pilings, while beneficial to the environment, means less reasons to visit.
Leading Bandito Charters, Captain Rick Myers has taken thousands of divers to Maury Island over the last 20 years, and while he understands the importance of removing hazardous objects from the environment, Maury Island pier was a once in a lifetime dive site.
“It’s one of those sites that could appeal to all levels because it was easy with some deeper stuff on it too. More divers have done their first boat dives at this site than pretty much all [Washington] dive sites put together,” he explains. “We’re going to look and see what’s left – see if we can hit the barges and the boulder field – but the pilings will surely be missed.”
The pier at Maury Island is just one example of a problem Puget Sound has faced for decades. Many of these legacy pilings have littered the region for nearly 100 years, and because they are treated with toxic creosote, take a long time to decay.
However, many of these manmade reef structures, whether intentional or not, have provided a solid type of habitation for sea life for decades. The current-swept waters of Puget Sound and pilings offer a vertical hard substrate, which are irresistible to many marine species. To the naked eye, these habitats look healthy and full of life, but according to Higley, since some animals are more vulnerable to the toxic surface, they are dominated by a single species of anemones – white plumose anemones – rather than a larger diversity of life.
“When the pilings are physically pulled from the water, some of the marine life, like fish, can escape. However, lots of the animals are attached and will be removed with the piling. The divers can pry off many of these animals like sea stars, anemones, crabs, chitons, and cucumbers,” Higley explains. “Sadly some, like giant barnacles, are permanently attached, and are difficult if not impossible to remove without killing them in the process.”
As the piling removal project continues throughout Puget Sound, WSA and Higley are working with marine conservation organization Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) to establish a set of standard procedures, which can be used to help groups and individuals relocate marine life.
On September 20, Higley, Trask, REEF Outreach Coordinator Janna Nichols, and Rhoda Green, chairwoman of the Friends of Saltwater State Park committee for WSA, met at the Marine Science and Technology Center at Redondo to go over the plan. Less than two hour later, a draft copy was completed.
Before publishing the plan, WSA wishes to see how well the critters have taken to the relocation project. On October 1, Bandito Charters and WSA members will conduct a count of creatures on the wreck and boulder field. Follow up checks will take place for up to six months or more.
But there’s much more than pilings in Puget Sound. Looking forward, Trask is concerned other reef structures may be in jeopardy and plans to incorporate these joint procedures to other projects, including efforts to establish new reefs:
“WSA needs to put [this] program together because we’re going to deal with not only the pilings, but also tire reefs that are going to pulled out. I would also like to talk to Project AWARE as well as REEF to apply grant funding to charter operations to take volunteer divers out for these efforts.
“I’m excited for WSA to lead the charge on this project. There’s thousands of pilings and tires in Puget Sound that are going to come out. We need to think logically about this and pick and choose our battles as to which pilings and reefs [we select] and use this project as mitigation for our ongoing efforts to install rocky reefs in Puget Sound.”
Higley and Trask also hope to work closely with the DNR and are looking for ways to get the word out well ahead of ongoing piling removal projects. DNR’s correspondence to Trask not only signals the beginning of a fruitful future for Maury Island critters, but an opening for a stronger relationship between the department and local diving representatives.
“Historically, DNR has just done this; they haven’t asked citizens to help remove stuff. This was the first time I am aware of where there was enough time to significantly remove animals,” Higley states. “Six months means we can get teams out there and get [the pilings] completely cleaned off. Working with DNR as a partner can be a pre-emptive strike; and [we want them] to realize the recreational divers are here to help.”
Since 1992, Washington Scuba Alliance (WSA) has been committed to work with state, county, city, and local departments and volunteer divers to establish underwater parks and preserves, creating recreational attractions and safe havens for the rich marine biodiversity in Washington waters. WSA strives to create a unified group of divers, as dive clubs, dive stores, and charter operators who work together on projects. For more details on WSA, visit www.wascuba.org.
For ongoing information on the DNR’s creosote removal plan, visit www.dnr.wa.gov.