Salmon recovery efforts in the Whidbey Basin of northwestern Washington are more strategic thanks to a team led by two WSU Extension Beach Watchers who have been named “Environmental Heroes” by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration for their efforts.

NOAA annually distributes just 10 “Environmental Hero Awards” throughout the United States. This year, two of those go to Beach Watcher volunteers Bob Buck of Langley and Jim Somers of Oak Harbor. They are part of a team that monitors how juvenile salmon use pocket estuaries in the Whidbey Basin; the data they collect helps county planners develop salmon recovery strategies.

“This national award recognizes something we’ve known all along – WSU Extension Beach Watchers are the environmental heroes of the Puget Sound area,” said Linda Kirk Fox, associate vice president and dean of WSU Extension. “The science-based training these volunteers receive makes them invaluable partners in preserving the health and well-being of the sound and surrounding water systems.”

Don Meehan, director of WSU Extension in Island County and founder of the Beach Watcher program in Washington, agreed. “Bob and Jim represent the high caliber of individuals in the WSU Beach Watcher program. This work their team is doing is fundamental to communities valuing Puget Sound and protecting its natural resources,” he said.

Meehan also credited the Island County Marine Resources Committee, a partner that provided funding for equipment used in the project. “They are key supporters of this work and the Beach Watcher program in general.”

Buck, a retired naval aviator, and Somers, a retired orthodontist, have been involved with the salmon seining project
in Island County since 2004 in four areas – Harrington Lagoon, Race Lagoon, Ala Spit and Elger Bay. Twice a month, using an 80 foot by 6 foot, small beach seining net, they capture the fish, identify them by species, count them, measure them and then release them. They also analyze water quality at the sites for temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen.

The work is tide dependent. “So if high tide is at 6 in the morning, that’s when we need to be out there, rain or shine,” Buck said.

The data collected by the team goes to NOAA for further analysis, then back to the fisheries biologists at tribal partner Skagit River Systems Cooperative who compile it into reports that salmon recovery planners use to prioritize and implement salmon recovery projects. “The question is: Do salmon, especially Puget Sound Chinook salmon, use these estuaries? If the answer is yes, they become a priority for conservation and/or restoration,” Buck said. The federal government listed Chinook salmon as a threatened species in 1999.

Buck and Somers emphasized that every person
of their 12-member team should be considered an environmental hero. “It really is a team award,” Buck said. “Even though we’ve been singled out, it is a team effort. We couldn’t do it on our own.”

Buck and Somers are among more than 688 Beach Watcher volunteers working in all of the northern Puget Sound counties. Professionally trained, these volunteers work to provide marine science, stewardship and education throughout the Puget Sound region.