Volunteers count fish eggs to evaluate health of marine waters

EVERETT — An Ohioan who retired from a career in the insurance industry found herself immersed in a quintessentially Northwest marine science project one morning earlier this month.

Donna Kinsey was among a dozen volunteers at McCollum Park sifting and winnowing fish eggs from sand taken from the shores of Puget Sound.

The testing aims to assess the overall health of local marine waters by examining populations of forage fish such as sand lance and surf smelt. More specifically, it aims to identify the spawning grounds for different fish species.

“You don’t have to be somebody from here, you don’t have to be somebody working in biology,” Kinsey said. “You can be a big help.”

The Everett resident got involved about two years ago with the Beach Watchers program run by Washington State University Snohomish County Extension. In exchange for 80 hours of training, volunteers commit 100 hours to research projects, public education or other activities of their choosing. Counting fish eggs is just one of many options.

The program has 75 active beach watchers. Another 30 people have undergone shorter training sessions as beach naturalists. Snohomish County, the city of Mukilteo and the state Department of Ecology jointly fund the training.

Kinsey’s fellow volunteers at McCollum came from eclectic mix of backgrounds: electrical engineer, construction supervisor, a health district inspector and a man who said he worked in merchandising for a dog-food company.

“For someone who is retired, this is an ideal opportunity because you can pick the hours,” said Chrys Sacco Bertolotto, natural resource programs manager for the local WSU Extension. “It’s not all weekends and nights.”

Some volunteers are still in the workforce.

Carol Winter, a beach watcher since 2011, has put in almost 500 hours. Much of that has been at Kayak Point Park, where Winter teaches people, including groups of schoolchildren, about the beach environment. She’s also helped conduct scientific surveys of plants, animals and other aspects of the nearshore habitat. When not volunteering, she works as a computer systems analyst.

Craig Wollam,a retired construction supervisor, has put in 3,500 volunteer hours since 2010 with Beach Watchers and other programs, including ones overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I retired and I got myself into this,” he said. “I’m pretty busy.”

Lately, keeping busy has involved sampling for forage-fish eggs. Forage fish are an important food source for seals, other fish and waterfowl. Forage fish spawn in the vegetation and beaches around Puget Sound, making them vulnerable to shoreline development, including bulkheads, the removal of coastal trees and dredging. If the little fish are unhealthy, critters up the food chain probably aren’t doing well either.

This is the fifth year that Beach Watchers has taken the samples.

Volunteers took 13 samples this year along a four-mile stretch of beach, between Mukilteo and Everett. At each location, they loaded a clear, plastic bag that weighed a little over 10 pounds.

Back at McCollum, volunteers sifted the sand through a series of sieves, then sorted the material further in dish pans.

“I say it’s like gold-panning,” said Alyson Rae, a program assistant for the Marine Resources program.

The work helps reveal eggs that might measure only a few millimeters wide. The Beach Watchers send the samples to a biologist for testing.

Volunteers do the legwork to help Snohomish County’s Marine Resources Committee understand spawning patterns. In the future, the data should help the committee judge the success of a beach- restoration project scheduled later this year to remove a bulkhead at Everett’s Howarth Park and renourish sand in several spots.

“You walk away from this and you feel good,” Bertolotto said. “You’ve done something good.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

Join up

The application deadline is March 13 to join WSU Snohomish County Extension’s next Beach Watchers training session.

Here’s how it works: Receive 80 hours of training by local experts, in the classroom and in the field. In return, the program requires trainees to volunteer at least 100 hours over two years. That volunteer work can involve education, research or habitat-restoration projects that you select. Projects range from educational beach walks at low tide to taking fish-egg samples, to newsletter writing and office work.

Training sessions are offered from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every Friday from April 3 to May 15. The training continues from Sept. 11 through Oct 16. Training is based at McCollum Park, 600 128th St. SE, Everett. There is a $35 fee for materials.

For more information, call 425-357-6020 or go to www.beachwatchers.wsu.edu/snohomish/training/index.htm.

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