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

The rich marine environment of the San Juan Islands offers extensive recreational opportunities such as wildlife viewing, fishing, and crabbing. Last year’s pandemic-related travel restrictions led to huge increases in boat traffic in the islands, and this summer is shaping up to be extra busy as well.

All of these extra boats — crowding waterways, marinas, and anchorages — add stress on the marine ecosystem. However, there are simple things local and visiting boaters can do to protect habitat and be part of the solution for at-risk species such as Marbled Murrelet seabirds, Chinook salmon, and the Southern Resident killer whales.

Pacific herring lay their eggs on blades of eelgrass. Photo credit: Eiko Jones

To appreciate the potential impacts of boats, it’s helpful to understand our marine habitats: Orcas eat salmon, salmon eat forage fish, and forage fish need healthy, natural beaches and shallow-water eelgrass and kelp habitats to lay their eggs in.

What are forage fish?

Located near the bottom of the food chain, forage fish play an important role converting plankton into high energy meals for the birds, marine mammals, and big fish we all love. In the islands, our primary forage fish are Pacific herring, who spawn on eelgrass, and surf smelt and Pacific sand lance, who spawn on beaches.

What is eelgrass?

Eelgrass is a flowering plant that grows in shallow, light-filled marine waters. The long blades of eelgrass provide food and shelter for many juvenile fish and shellfish of ecological, cultural, commercial, and recreational importance, like Dungeness crabs and juvenile Chinook salmon. Herring spawn on eelgrass beds in Eastsound and West Sound on Orcas Island; Shoal, Hunter and Mud Bays on Lopez Island; and Blind Bay on Shaw Island. As these areas are also very popular anchorages, it means that boaters need to provide extra care and protection when in these bays.

Endangered species rely upon forage fish and eelgrass.

Like the Marbled Murrelet, other seabirds including this Rhinocerous Auklet feed on forage fish. Photo credit: Andrew Reding

Endangered Marbled Murrelet seabirds that nest in old-growth forests across northern Washington and southern British Columbia use the San Juan Islands as a year-round foraging area. During their summer breeding season, the San Juans are an especially important foraging spot, and you may see these small birds scoop up a bill full of small forage fish and head back to the forests where their young chicks await in the nest.

Chinook salmon utilize the shorelines in the San Juans for “rearing habitat.” When young salmon make the long journey from their natal rivers to the ocean, the islands’ protected beaches and bays play an extremely important role as their pit stop. How many little fish they can eat along the way plays a big role in how quickly they grow, and how many survive their critical first summer. And of course, Chinook salmon are key to the success of our Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Currently, only 75 individuals make up the entire Southern Resident killer whale population. To maintain and grow these highly endangered families, everyone needs to do their part to be stewards of the Salish Sea.

Luckily there are simple things that boaters can do to help!

Sailboats anchored on a busy day in the San Juan Islands. Photo Credit: Mark Gardner

How can you help?

Below are some tips on how you can protect marine habitats and forage fish and help ensure salmon, seabirds, rockfish, and the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have enough to eat.

Avoid anchoring in herring spawning grounds — anchor out in waters deeper than the eelgrass growing zone, or use a mooring buoy when staying outside a marina. Use the detailed and site-specific “anchor out of eelgrass” map to plan ahead and ensure your boating experience in the San Juan Islands is safe and enjoyable for people and nature!

Protect marine mammals by keeping your distance, reducing speeds, and turning off fish finders and echo sounders when not in use.

Keep marine waters clean by using pump outs, maintaining your boat, and quickly cleaning even small spills.

For more boater resources, visit Pick up your own Green Boating brochure at local marinas and visitor information centers. And if you have visitors coming on their private boat, please share this information with them too.

All of us can also help improve marine habitats and protect species by limiting use of lawn fertilizers and garden chemicals, preserving vegetation to avoid runoff and siltation of marine waters, and avoiding single-use plastics.

We wish everyone a fun and safe summer!

Each year I make a generous gift to the Friends of the San Juans because it’s the one organization where I can actually follow the money from my checkbook to observable measurable outcomes. Will you join me in making a gift to support one of the most beautiful, precious, fragile monuments to nature on earth?

George Lawson

members, Lopez Island