In February 1953, the Washington State Department of Lands granted a 10-year lease to E.W. Steffen of Seattle for an oyster farm in Dungeness Bay. The farm was to be located between the shoreline and the eelgrass beds on the north side of Dungeness Harbor next to the spit. Steffen and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service agreed on harvesting by hand and a harvest season that avoided disturbing wintering waterfowl.
While Steffen honored the agreement, subsequent owners of Dungeness Oyster Company kept asking to use a dredge, but refuge managers were opposed. When the lease came up for renewal in 1963, “dueling biological studies” argued the pros and cons of whether dredging harmed eelgrass beds.
While experience in some parts of the country indicated damage was possible, the evidence was not conclusive. The refuge managers also questioned whether the dredging operation would disturb the wintering waterfowl, but after an experiment proved that wrong, in 1963 the state renewed the lease for 10 years and allowed dredging.
OK, so what is eelgrass and why is it so important? Zostera marina beds are incredibly rich underwater meadows. You would need an entire book to describe the community of an eelgrass bed. It is not seaweed, but an underwater grass complete with roots and flowers. It not only provides food in itself, but it also harbors other plants and animals, ranging from the microscopic to crabs, birds and fish. It flourishes in the spring and summer and dies back in the winter. Ranging in depth from between the tides to as deep as 20-plus feet under water, it is found worldwide. The eelgrass beds are the heart of Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. But eelgrass is vulnerable to human-caused damage. The eelgrass beds in Puget Sound have declined by 70 percent.
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