Monday, December 12, 2016

The Wonders Beneath the Waves

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Eelgrass Meadows are an important habitat for many animals in the Salish Sea © PTMSC 1991

When walking on the beach near Fort Worden, I am always on the hunt for Eelgrass (Zostera Marina) to add to our display in the Marine Exhibit. I often find what I’m looking for near the high tide line, in a tangled ball that has been uprooted and washed ashore by the waves. Searching for Eelgrass is like a treasure hunt for me, where each tangled ball I find is a clue that  provides me with insight to the wonders that lie beneath the waves. Adding the Eelgrass to the display transforms it even further. The tangled mass I collected on the beach unfurls. Vertically suspended in the water column the blades of Eelgrass sway as the water circulates throughout the tank.

Eelgrass (Zostera Marina) collected

off of the beach at Fort Worden. Photo by Juhi LaFuente
The Eelgrass tank illuminated by sunlight.
 Photo by PTMSC

At first glance, this tank appears to be filled with Eelgrass and nothing more. However, upon further examination, what I think is a piece of Eelgrass turns out to be a juvenile Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus) seeking refuge in the tangle of blades. I begin to notice more and more pairs of eyes peering back at me. Tiny Tadpole Sculpins (Psychrolutes paradoxus) dart back and forth, and eel-like fish, called Gunnels, peak their heads out to survey their surroundings. Along the bottom, Crabs scuttle and a Sea Cucumber slowly grazes in search of food. This underwater meadow is, in fact, teeming with life.

A Bay Pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus)
disguises itself as a piece of Eelgrass.

Photo by Juhi LaFuente

The Eelgrass display in the Marine Exhibit provides visitors with a glimpse into an important nearshore habitat that often goes unseen beneath the waves. Eelgrass is a flowering marine plant that is widely dispersed throughout the Salish Sea. Found in tidelands and shallow waters, Eelgrass thrives in soft sediment habitats that receive plenty of sunlight. A network of underground stems, called rhizomes, help stabilize the surrounding sediment and anchor the Eelgrass in place. In dense meadows, blades of Eelgrass also help impede current flow and buffers the shoreline from oncoming waves.  

Many invertebrates and fish depend on and use Eelgrass beds for food and protection from predators. Eelgrass helps ensure the survival of juvenile fish such as Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) and Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). These fish are important sources of food for many animals. Chinook salmon are the preferred food of the Southern Resident Orcas (Orcinus orca) residing in the Puget Sound.    

Found in such close proximity to the shore, eelgrass beds do not go undisturbed by humans. Eelgrass beds in the Puget Sound are threatened by shoreline development, including dredging and the construction of over water structures that block sunlight. Boaters also risk damaging these beds by cutting the grass with their propellers and tearing it up with their anchors. In order to protect Eelgrass habitat, boaters are advised to slow down or stop when cruising over Eelgrass beds and encouraged to avoid anchoring in eelgrass altogether.
In an effort to protect Eelgrass beds, the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee established voluntary “No Anchor Zones” along the Port Townsend Waterfront. These zones are marked by special buoys and protect over 50 acres of Eelgrass in the waters off Port Townsend. Since the installation of these buoys in 2004, the Marine Resources Committee has observed a  98% compliance within these no anchor zones.

As the AmeriCorps Marine Exhibit Educator, I enjoy engaging visitors in conversations about our local marine life and important nearshore ecosystems like Eelgrass. Your donations to support the Marine Exhibit help ensure that visitors of all ages will be able to continue to explore, observe and learn about the wonders beneath the waves. The Marine Exhibit plays an integral role in helping us fulfill our mission “Inspiring Conservation of the Salish Sea”, Thank you for making this possible through your continued support.

Please consider donating today.

Juhi LaFuente is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.


  1. This is a fantastic post, Juhi, bringing attention to the wonders and incredible value of eelgrass! Great photos and illustration, too. Whenever I'm a docent in the Marine Exhibit, I always engage visitors in looking more closely into the eelgrass tank because of all the amazing animals you listed.

  2. Great stuff Juhi. I love showing visitors our own 'seahorses.' I like your inclusion of actions we can take - i.e., keeping boats away and thoughtful shoreline development. Great job!


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