An eagle swooped through the midday sky as 10 volunteers, a field biologist and an intern stepped off of a water taxi onto a white-sand beach on Thormanby Island. The sea lapped the shore at a very low tide. It was an ideal time to monitor eelgrass.

PODS team counts eelgrass.
Tanya Steinauer, Tristar Kivari, and Jenn Blancard count eelgrass. (photos by Al Hyland)

The volunteers counted close to 1,800 eelgrass shoots. They also gathered sand that was likely to contain forage fish eggs, and they ran it through a vortex.

Jenn Blancard, field biologist for the Pender Harbour Ocean Discovery Station (PODS), said eelgrass is “super, super important” for the eco-system. “It is the nursery for so many animals.”

These include the forage fish the volunteers were searching for, as well as invertebrates such as barnacles and larval crabs. Bait fish hide in eelgrass until they emerge and become food for larger fish. Birds, such as sea gulls, and mammals, such as seals, hunt for food within eelgrass beds.

“Eighty-five percent of all marine species use the eelgrass at some part of their life,” Blancard said.

Kivari records the eelgrass count along the transcept.

As the volunteers watched on a damp stretch of sand, Blanchard explained how to lay out a transept—a measuring line—to determine the study area. Next, a volunteer stood with her back to the line and threw out a quadrant (a plastic frame) to isolate a square of eelgrass. It landed about a metre from the beginning of the line and half a metre out.

“That’s where we’ll start,” Blancard said.

Meanwhile, Joel Sagar, who had travelled to Thormanby with his parents, scooped sand into the vortex bucket. Underneath the bucket, a car battery powered up a turbine that created cyclone action that whirled sand through a screen. The grains most likely to contain fish eggs stayed above the screen.

Michelle Haggenmueller and Joel Sagar at the vortex.

“You need to identify which grains have got eggs on them,” volunteer Martin Farncombe, a chemist from Pender Harbour, explained. Back in the PODS lab a microscope is used to find eggs, he said. “They get sent off for DNA analysis so we know which species they are.”

That day, the volunteers were looking for sand lance eggs and surf smelt eggs. None had been found so far on Thormanby. That may be because researchers don’t know the time of year the fish tend to spawn there. There are two years left in the study and other beaches are being monitored, Blancard said. There’s a good chance the eggs will be found.

PODS has also been compiling data about many marine species including seaweed, salmon, pinnipeds (sea lions and seals), smolt, and green crabs.

The goals are awareness, education, collaboration with other researchers throughout the Salish Sea, and the hope of saving the planet by saving even the tiniest bits of marine life in the food chain. In order to save them, they must be counted. Over time, dips in the numbers could push government and non-governmental groups toward species-saving actions.

Blancard explains how to isolate eelgrass patches.

In a major step toward the educational goal, PODS and Capilano University just signed a memorandum of understanding.

“It’s for a partnership to make the world a better place,” Michael Jackson, executive director of PODS, said before the memorandum was announced at the university’s Sechelt Campus earlier this month.

The research station hopes to collaborate with the university on course offerings and programs. “They are very interested in having a marine facility where students can come and learn about monitoring and field work,” Jackson said.

Simon Fraser University has also signed on with plans to use labs at the PODS’ research facility once it opens.

Jackson expects to break ground on the site in May 2020. Construction of the facility, including laboratories, a conference centre, underwater galleries, and a restaurant, will take two years, he said, with an expected opening in early summer 2022. Some $3 million in funding for the project has been raised.

The group heads out from Thormanby on the water taxi.

Meanwhile, PODS continues to look for volunteers of all ages. According to 11-year-old Sagar: “It’s about learning responsibility and how we all have a role in the play of the environment. That’s why we’re here.”

PODS’ species monitoring continues through the winter. For information on volunteering, please visit the PODS site.