The San Juan Archipelago, located at the confluence of the Puget Sound, the Straits of Juan de Fuca in Washington State, and the Straits of Georgia, British Columbia, Canada, provides essential nearshore habitat for diverse salmonid, forage fish, and bird populations. With 408 miles of coastline, the San Juan Islands provide a significant portion of the available nearshore habitat for the greater Puget Sound and are an essential part of the regional efforts to restore Puget Sound (Puget Sound Shared Strategy 2005). The nearshore areas of the San Juan Islands provide a critical link between the terrestrial and marine environments. For this reason the focus on restoration and conservation of nearshore habitat in the San Juan Islands is of paramount importance.
Wood-waste was a common by-product of historical lumber-milling operations. To date, relatively little attention has been given to the impact of historical lumber-milling operations in the San Juan Archipelago. Thatcher Bay, on Blakely Island, located near the east edge of the archipelago, is presented here as a case study on the restoration potential for a wood-waste contaminated nearshore area. Case study components include (1) a brief discussion of the history of milling operations. (2) an estimate of the location and amount of the current distribution of wood-waste at the site, (3) a preliminary examination of the impacts of wood-waste on benthic flora and fauna at the site, and (4) the presentation of several restoration alternatives for the site.
The history of milling activity in Thatcher Bay began in 1879 with the construction of a mill in the southeastern part of the bay. Milling activity continued for more than 60 years, until the mill closed in 1942. Currently, the primary evidence of the historical milling operations is the presence of approximately 5,000 yd3 of wood-waste contaminated sediments. The distribution and thickness of residual wood-waste at the site was determined by using sediment coring and GIS-based interpolation techniques. Additionally, pilot studies were conducted to characterize in place sediment redox, organic composition, and sulfide impacts to nearshore flora and fauna.
We found that the presence of wood-waste in Thatcher Bay may alter the quality of the benthic habitat by contributing to elevated levels of total organic composition (TOC) of the sediment. Increased TOC favors anaerobic respiration in marine sediments, and sulfide, a toxic by-product of this process, was found at levels as high as 17.5 mg L-1 in Thatcher Bay. The Thatcher Bay sulfide levels are several orders of magnitude higher than those known to impact benthic invertebrates.
Eelgrass, Zostera marina, located on the western margin of Thatcher Bay, was surveyed by using underwater video surveys. This baseline distribution will in part be used to measure the impact of any future remediation efforts. Additionally, the distribution and survey data can provide an estimate of propagule source for future colonization of restored sediment.
Three restoration alternatives were considered, and a ranking matrix was developed to score each alternative against site-specific and regional criteria. The process identified the removal of wood-waste from a water-based platform as the preferred alternative.
Our multidisciplinary investigation identified the location, thickness, and potential impacts of wood-waste that has persisted in the nearshore environment of Thatcher Bay since at least 1942. We also provide a process to efficiently evaluate alternatives to remediate the impact of this historical disturbance and to potentially contribute to an increase of nearshore diversity and productivity at this site. Elements of this approach could inform restoration planning at similarly impacted sites throughout the region.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Thatcher Bay, Washington, Nearshore Restoration Assessment