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Tide Bites: Immersive Learning Supports Undergraduate Research in Watershed and Estuarine Ecology

  • Written by Wendel Raymond and Brooke Sullivan

The UW False Bay preserve has been an important site for FHL field trips and research efforts for decades, but with few attempts to link these efforts or create a long-term database as exists for other university-controlled sites. Growing local interest in the bay and its watershed inspired FHL Director Megan Dethier to offer a new research apprenticeship to use the bay and its associated watershed as a classroom to teach research methods and estuarine ecology.

Fig. 1: BMEE students getting ready for field work. Photo credit: Brooke Sullivan

Affectionately termed "Be-MEE" (Biodiversity and Monitoring of Estuarine Ecology – BMEE), the aim of the apprenticeship was to expose students to a wide range of methods available for place-based estuarine research including biological, hydrological and geochemical sampling needed to investigate ecological conditions across a variety of disciplines and scales.

We first offered this apprenticeship last quarter (Autumn, 2021) to a diverse group of 12 students (Figure 1). Over 10 weeks, we progressed through exploration of ecological theory and practice, numerous trips along the length of the watershed, and hands-on group and individual field studies and analyses relevant to the Bay and/or its contributing drainage basins.

False Bay is situated on the southwest side of San Juan Island and is characterized by a semi-constricted inlet and large tidally-influenced sand flat which opens out into eelgrass meadows, a kelp forest and Haro Strait (Figure 2). The bay is part of the Labs’ system of biological preserves, which conserve over 1600 acres of iconic and diverse marine and coastal habitats. The False Bay Preserve property hosts around 300 acres of tidelands and ~25 acres of adjacent upland property. The estuary and its associated drainage basins have been the focus of historic biological studies including several entire PhD dissertations.

False Bay Creek drains the largest watershed on the island and flows through the popular San Juan County Land Bank Lake Zylstra Preserve. Freshwater from False Bay Creek and several smaller drainages enter the preserve after passing through diverse bedrock, forest, lake, wetland, agricultural and estuarine landscapes, bringing flows of sediment, nutrients and biota to False Bay.

The watershed is also a priority of current preservation and habitat restoration efforts by a consortium of County, State, and local organizations seeking to improve water quality and conditions for fishes, including endangered Coho salmon.

False Bay has long been known locally as the beach with the “stinkin’ seaweed” which piles up near the road and at the mouth of False Bay Creek (Figure 2). While unpleasant, this super abundance of the green algae Ulva spp. is a unique feature of the bay and likely a major driver for the local ecological community.

One of the foci for ongoing studies is trying to understand to what extent this “green tide” is natural, or if it is influenced by nutrients entering the bay from the uplands. We started sampling nutrients, especially nitrogen, in various parts of the watershed and the bay last spring, and will continue this sampling for at least one whole year. We hope that a future Tide Bite can report some answers to the “why so much Ulva?” question.

Fig. 2: Aerial photo of False Bay. Image credit: Washington Dept of Ecology.

A major inspiration for the direction and tone of the BMEE apprenticeship is centered on our understanding of the interconnectedness of organisms, communities, ecosystems, and the abiotic environment. False Bay and its watersheds are ideal ‘classrooms’ for learning about estuarine and stream ecology and identifying key relationships between terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The connections among them include material, energy and trophic flows, sediments, water, minerals, nutrients, plants, microbes and other biota that define global ecosystems. Geologic, hydrologic, chemical and biotic gradients created opportunities for ecological investigations that were of interest to individual students.

The goal of the apprenticeship is not only for students to gain research skills, but to contribute their own pieces to an increased understanding of the False Bay ecosystem. A systems-level understanding is needed to effectively manage and restore terrestrial and marine systems.

Student work helps bring clarity to the past, present and future of this unique system while training the next generation of ecologists to understand complex problems. In the process, they find pathways to developing a career in ecological research.

‘Scientific research’ describes a wide range of disciplines and collaborations; potential opportunities for student research in False Bay and its watershed are truly endless (Figure 3). This year, our inaugural group of students completed 12 independent research projects.

We hope to use these to start building long-term, open-source datasets on FHL’s preserves. The projects this year covered highly diverse topics and a wide range of scales:

Quantifying False Bay Creek water flow

False Bay Creek’s influence on sediment grain size in the Bay

Biodiversity of zooplankton in False Bay and Friday Harbor

Ulva growth in False Bay, San Juan Island, Washington

Remote sensing demonstrates periodic fluctuations in eelgrass meadow cover of False Bay Diversity of fungal endophytes in False Bay eelgrass

Biodiversity variation in the eelgrass patches of False Bay

An estimate of ghost shrimp population characteristics in False Bay

The role of habitat structure on the abundance and size distribution of the shore crab, Hemigrapsus oregonensis, in False Bay

Sculpin size and abundance as a function of tidepool conditions in False Bay

Measuring differences in clam populations between two stream outflow areas in False Bay

Species assemblage of top-down predators across eelgrass and sandflat habitat at False Bay

Fig. 3: Students exploring False Bay Creek. Photo credit: Mariah Josten

Together, we have learned so much and are grateful for the chance to add to the past knowledge of this bay and its watershed and begin long-term sampling. We hope to build on this work and investigate other aspects of the False Bay watershed for years to come. And as always, we are grateful for the support of donors who enable students from many different backgrounds to participate in these amazing learning experiences.

Written by Wendel Raymond and Brooke Sullivan

Dr. Wendel Raymond is a Nearshore Ecology Research Scientist and co-instructor of the Biodiversity and Monitoring of Estuarine Ecology (BMEE) Research Apprenticeship. Wendel first came to FHL as an REU in 2011 and has since completed his PhD at University of Alaska Fairbanks. In addition to developing and teaching BMEE, Wendel is working on multiple ecological research projects in the region.

Dr. Brooke K. Sullivan is an FHL Faculty Teaching Fellow from the Department of Landscape Architecture and co-instructor in BMEE. Ze is a coastal ecologist focused on large-scale restoration of marine and coastal vegetation communities. In addition, Brooke is focused on improving the life and learning of students, faculty and staff in higher education.