Protect What You Love: Green Boating in the San Juan Islands

Posted May 21, 2020 at 7:42 am by

Boats on Moorings - Mark Gardner photo

The 2020 boat­ing sea­son is offi­cial­ly upon us, and soon our anchor­ages will begin to fill with local and vis­it­ing pri­vate boats.

Our amaz­ing group of islands, where boaters find won­der and relax­ation, are also where fish and wildlife find food and shel­ter. One of the Sal­ish Sea’s most crit­i­cal and sen­si­tive marine habi­tats is eelgrass.

This flow­er­ing plant grows in shal­low, light-filled marine waters. Eel­grass nur­tures many species, includ­ing crabs and juve­nile Chi­nook salmon and is where Pacif­ic her­ring lay their eggs. 

Pacif­ic her­ring are small school­ing fish that play a big role in marine food webs by sup­port­ing salmon, which in turn feed the South­ern Res­i­dent orcas. In San Juan Coun­ty, there are just four remain­ing her­ring spawn­ing areas:

  • East Sound on Orcas Island
  • West Sound on Orcas Island
  • Blind Bay on Shaw Island
  • The Mud Bay and Hunter Bay region of Lopez Island.

His­toric her­ring spawn­ing areas were locat­ed in the Westcott/Garrison Bay region of San Juan Island; areas where sig­nif­i­cant declines in eel­grass have also occurred.

Boaters have an impor­tant role to play in pro­tect­ing marine habi­tat. Eel­grass dam­aged by boat anchors can take years to recov­er. While the impact of each indi­vid­ual anchor­ing event may be small, the com­bined effects of con­tin­u­al boat anchor dam­age is sig­nif­i­cant. To help salmon and the endan­gered South­ern Res­i­dent orcas, anchor out in waters deep­er than the eel­grass, or if avail­able, use a moor­ing buoy (please check cur­rent clo­sures due to Covid-19). While eel­grass is present at most pop­u­lar anchor­ages in the San Juans, in many loca­tions the shal­low mead­ows can be eas­i­ly avoid­ed by anchor­ing in waters deep­er than 15 feet.

Take a few min­utes to edu­cate your­self about what eel­grass looks like and where it typ­i­cal­ly grows. You can find an eel­grass depth map and oth­er resources for boaters at sanjuans.org/greenboating; use the map to help pro­tect habi­tat by anchor­ing out beyond the eelgrass.

Boaters can help pro­tect marine mam­mals by keep­ing your dis­tance, reduc­ing speeds, and turn­ing off fish find­ers and echo sounders when not in use. Do your part to keep marine waters clean by using pump outs, mak­ing sure your boat is in good work­ing order, and quick­ly clean­ing even small oil spills. 

Be pre­pared, be safe, and have fun out there!

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