New refuge preserves underwater landscapes in Puget Sound

Sep 9, 2011

The state is adding 15,000 acres of protected land around the Nisqually Reach Wildlife Refuge, exempting it from commercial development of any kind.

All the land is under water. It’s the seventh and southern-most area in Puget Sound to be designated as an Aquatic Reserve. Signing of a new management plan takes place today at 1:30 p.m.

Two years ago, dikes were removed and tides began washing through the wetlands of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, in one of the state’s biggest estuary restoration projects. A new mile-long boardwalk and nature center welcome visitors to the area just north of Olympia, which was farmland for about a century.

The grassy wetlands and open skies of the Nisqually Reach are home to increasing numbers of big marine birds such as blue herons. Eelgrass beds and other plants of the estuary form critical habitat that feeds and protects endangered fish and other wildlife. And there’s a whole underwater landscape surrounding it that’s just being discovered – and now protected – as an aquatic reserve.   

“There’s things like eelpouts and strange isopods and all kinds of things that only biologists get really excited about down there.  But we oftentimes find ourselves destroying those kinds of things before we even know they’re there," says Doug Meyers, the Director of Science with People for Puget Sound.

Sand waves

He also works with the Nisqually Reach Nature Center that’s been exploring the proposed underwater reserve and cataloging what’s there for the management plan. 

Meyers says the submerged portions of the river delta have some of the highest recorded sand waves on all of the west coast. They’re up to a hundred feet tall – and they move around with the tides like sand dunes in a desert.

“Based on the tidal currents, covering and uncovering hard-bottom habitats that are between the sound waves, and those hard-bottom habitats have things like anemones and sponges and soft corals and shrimp and those kinds of things, " Meyers says. "So the interplay between these sand waves and all the hard-bottom communities that get covered and uncovered  is a fairly unique dynamic. ” 

To clean and protect

Volunteers from the Nature Center teamed up with students at the University of Puget Sound to take underwater video of some of the proposed lands in the Nisqually Reach Aquatic reserve.

With the new designation, the state will manage these lands with an emphasis on environmental protection above all else, for the next 90 years. Meyers compares it to the status of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

The seven aquatic reserves are part of the state’s efforts to clean up and protect Puget Sound. The lands will be exempt from leasing for traditional uses such as pipelines, commercial docks, dredging and dumping – as well as designations for new developments that might pose a threat in the future – things like tidal energy mills, wind power or aquaculture.

The reserve will remain open for recreational use, fishing and boating.