EVERETT – On the surface, it seems like an oxymoron: a study of people on an uninhabited manmade island.
Yet that is exactly what an Edmonds Community College anthropology instructor is doing.
Thomas Murphy’s students have been asking questions of visitors while examining the ecology of Jetty Island, a recreational hot spot off the Everett shoreline each summer.
“As an anthropologist, I am intrigued by the human story behind the island,” Murphy said.
Jetty Island began to take shape in 1903, when a riprap jetty was created and dredge spoils were deposited there.
It grew over the next century with more dredged materials. The island stretches two miles in Port Gardner.
Over time, it has become a magnet for wildlife and families looking for summer fun. Observers have identified more than 115 species of birds on or near the island.
“I am intrigued by the intellectual challenge of writing (a people) account of an uninhabited island,” Murphy said. “While the island has no permanent human residents, it would not even exist without people.”
Many local residents take the free ferry run to observe nature, which is largely human-engineered, he said.
Jetty Island was one of several outdoor settings this summer that served as classrooms for students in Murphy’s Learn-n-Serve Environmental Anthropology Field class through EdCC.
The AmeriCorps-based program gives a chance to earn college credit and scholarships of $1,000 to $2,362 while helping local tribes, governments and environmental nonprofit groups clean up waterways and restore salmon habitat.
Students surveyed beaches at Picnic Point for juvenile spot prawns, helped the Stillaguamish Tribe capture chinook salmon for brood stock and measured large woody debris for fish habitat along creeks.
Since June, they have been canvassing the island, interviewing visitors and surveying plants and animals.
One student group interviewed dozens of Jetty Island visitors over several days to see what brings them to the sandy getaway. They found that 61 percent came for family outings and 21 percent for sunbathing. Another 7 percent came for kite boarding. Others were there on group outings.
Key findings: People want improved bathrooms and for the island to stay the same.
Devon Shigaki, an EdCC sophomore from Snohomish, learned about the class and Jetty Island last summer when his mom took the same class at the college.
He tagged along a few times and found he liked it, despite preconceived notions.
“My first thought was tree huggers, but when I came along, I realized it was normal people,” he said. “It inspired me.”
Another group made recommendations about what to do with invasive vegetation, such as Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry that competes for soil with natural plants.
“We changed our goal over time,” said Christa Scott, a sophomore from Everett.
At first, they wanted to pull everything up quickly.
Now, they suggest controlling the growth slowly with volunteer help and planting native species that can take over in time. They compiled a list of plants that can be used, such as Nootka rose, Oregon grape and alder trees.
Kraig Hansen, a city of Everett park ranger who has spent 15 years taking care of Jetty Island, has taken in the sights of bald eagles, ospreys and herons and documented the short, occasional visits from deer and coyote from nearby Smith Island.
Hansen likes seeing others become invested in making the island a better place.
“I didn’t realize there was that much of an interest in it, to actually study it and take a class, that’s great,” Hansen said.
The results of the students’ research are being shared with the city, Port of Everett and the People for Puget Sound environmental group to help guide management of the island and establish more plant communities.
Murphy will also use results of the students’ research in a book that explores the role of humans in the construction and use of the Jetty Island.
Scott said the class has been rewarding, especially the field work.
“Every day in this class, we got to do something we had never done before,” she said.