Indian Island: an ecosystem in recovery

Just off the shore of Eastsound stands an island in rehabilitation, a two-acre rock known as Indian Island. The Lopez Island-based conservation biology laboratory Kwiaht hosted its annual “Celebrate Indian Island” event on Thursday, Nov. 16, where director Russel Barsh gave an update on the organization’s rejuvenation efforts.

“We’re, as a region, very attractive. We’re drawing people from everywhere to share in the things that sometimes we take for granted. The places we sometimes take for granted,” said Barsh. “The question remains: How much can it bear? How much can we share without losing the opportunity for our children to grow up with the same beauty around them that we’ve enjoyed in our lifetimes?”

Since Kwiaht held its first Indian Island celebration in 2010, things have changed drastically on and around Eastsound’s “window to the sea.” The driftwood path across the island’s top has discouraged visitors from wandering aimlessly, crushing delicate wildflowers and endangering nesting birds. Since the path’s establishment, and Kwiaht’s clearing of non-native flora, the wildflowers have flourished and native mating birds are once again successfully rearing chicks.

“When we started, the island was a bit beat up; it was covered with a network of little [man-made] informal trails … an awful lot of the green were things like Himalayan blackberries. It was beat up, it was getting more beat up, an awful lot of the island was either bare ground, bare rock or invasive plants,” said Barsh. “At this point, we’re able to say the island has completely recovered.”

Indian Island is the the most visited destination in the San Juans per acre, explained Barsh. Over the last century, the island has experienced a lot of human impact. It was once home to a man who lived in a shack and later, a pier ran alongside it. The data since Kwiaht began observing the island is starting to show a clearer picture of the restoration progress and evolution.

“The island and bay have gone through some big changes just in the last 100 years or so. Not just the change in culture, from Native American communities here on Orcas Island to Euro-American communities, but a considerable amount of construction and disturbance of the bay itself,” said Barsh. “One thing that’s very important, I think, that we’re learning more about, strangely now, years after we started this project, is how much the island has changed in the last 100 years or so. It’s actually gone through a great deal of activity.”

The eelgrass surrounding Indian Island has oscillated between years of famish and flourish. The grass is being affected by the turbidity of the water, said Barsh. The stormwater runoff that is swept into Fishing Bay has increased the suspended particles, causing murkier, muddier water and restricting the amount of light reaching the grass. An interesting observation, added Barsh, is that the eastern side of the island seems to be more impacted by the turbidity than the west side, indicating the water is circulating west-to-east around the island. Stormwater runoff can also likely be blamed for the historically rocky beach turning muddier. This change in beach consistency is supported by the clams that are thriving there.

“Since we started taking data, that the steamers are down, the butters have stayed the same and the little mud clams, the macomas, have increased rapidly,” said Barsh. “What that is telling us is that that beach, that land bank beach is getting softer on the whole; muddier than it was before. That mud is filling in over the gravel and rocks that were there before and creating a beach that is softer and more compatible for these little soft-shell clams.”

In 2014, the island’s sea stars were decimated by sea star wasting syndrome. Barsh said the sea stars are slowly returning to their pre-disease populations.

“The recovery is really quite dramatic … they’ve come back with a vengeance,” said Barsh. “[Ochre stars] were able to take advantage of the immunity they acquired by exposure to the disease. Those that survived the initial infection have been doing very well. We’re seeing infection rates of only about one or two animals per thousand now.”

The number of fish in the waters encompassing the island has not diminished since observation began, but the species have changed. There are now fewer forage fish, like smelt and herring, but scientists are now observing an increase in midshipman and perch.

“Indian Island reminds us every day of the seabirds, tides and fish, and the fact that we live on an island and that everything we do affects the sea. Indian Island also adds something wild and magical to the experience of our summer visitors. A special sometime that brings people back for more,” said master of ceremonies David Turnoy. “Just how much can we enjoy and share our special places like Indian Island without damaging them forever?”