WWU's David Shull to Gather Data This Summer on the Health of Bellingham Bay

Western Washington University Professor of Environmental Science David Shull will work alongside the Washington Department of Ecology this summer to sample from 25 sites in Bellingham Bay, the beginning of a multi-year process to attempt to answer one question: How is Puget Sound changing?

“We know a couple of things are happening that aren’t good for the health of the Sound,” said Shull. “For example, we know that nitrogen levels are rising, and we know at the same time that levels of important animals on the sea floor, like clams, worms, and crustaceans, are dropping. What we don’t know is why – and how these two questions are intertwined. But that’s hopefully what we’re going to start to find out this summer.”

This summer’s work at 25 sample sites Bellingham Bay is the precursor to a larger effort next summer that will encompass more than 50 other sites across the length and breadth of the Sound.

Rising nitrogen levels are a concern to oceanographers like Shull because the chemical acts as fertilizer for many kinds of algae, and large blooms from these species can tip the balance of the Sound’s food web in many ways, from altering its chemistry to reducing delivery to the seafloor of the food that the bottom-dwelling organisms need.

Shull will take core samples from the bottom sediment at the 25 sites and analyze them to better understand what chemical reactions are occurring there, how much food is making its way to the bottom, and how this information points to other impacts such as rising ocean acidification.

Shull will work alongside Washington Department of Ecology scientists aboard the department’s research vessel the Skookum, and while Shull will be focused on chemistry and core sampling of sediments, Ecology will work to gather baseline data on the tiny animals that live there.

“Ecology’s Marine Sediment Monitoring Team has been tracking sediment quality in Puget Sound, including Bellingham Bay, since 1989.  The work has been focused on understanding the effects of chemical contamination on the sediment-dwelling invertebrates.  Our monitoring data suggests that other factors also influence invertebrate communities, which have declined in abundance and species diversity over the past two decades,” said the Department of Ecology’s Maggie Dutch.  “Dr. Shull’s work will help us gain a better understanding of the nitrogen budget in Puget Sound, nutrient cycling between the sediments and water column, and ultimately the food supply to sediment-dwelling invertebrates which are a critically important link in the Puget Sound food web.”

Shull said the data was sorely needed, because the last numbers they have are more than 50 years old.

“The sediment chemistry will unlock large chapters of this story for us,” Shull said. “But we’ve got to go out and get it first.”

For more information on Shull’s work in Bellingham Bay this summer, contact him at david.shull@wwu.edu.