Orchard Rocks lies in the eastern portion of Rich Passage, a high-current channel separating Bainbridge Island and the eastern portion of the Kitsap Peninsula. The site lies in the middle of the channel and consists of rocky ridges, bedrock, and cobble and pebble habitats that extend from intertidal depths to depths of 70 feet (mllw). A series of ridges ranging to several meters in height are oriented along the long axis of the channel, and the ridges are separated by exposed bedrock, boulders, cobble, or coarse unconsolidated material. Much of the exposed bedrock, boulders, and cobbles are covered with a variety of marine vegetation including bladed kelps and foliose red algae. Pterygophora californica is present, especially growing on the tops of the ridges and in high-current areas.
The natural bedrock and boulders provide habitats for rock associated fish and invertebrate species. Copper rockfish (Sebastes caurinus) and quillback rockfish (S. maliger) once were common at this site but now are rare. Brown rockfish (S. auriculatus) are common as are lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus), red Irish lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus), buffalo sculpin (Enophrys bison), striped seaperch (Embiotoca lateralis), and pile perch (Rhacochilus vacca. Kelp greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus), painted greenling (Oxylebius pictus), cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus) are consistently present in the reserve.
Dominant invertebrates include red rock crab (Cancer productus), spider crabs (Pugettia spp.), red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), and orange sea cucumber (Cucumaria miniata).
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) frequently visit the site and are often seen hauled out on the exposed rocks at low tide. California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are also commonly observed at the site and may be seen hauled out on nearby navigational buoys.
Diving ducks are common at the site during the winter and seabirds such as commorants and pigeon guillemonts (Cepphus columba) are often seen within the reserve.
WDFW regulations prohibit commercial and recreational fishing at the Orchard Rocks Conservation Area, and WDFW manages the site as a fully-protected marine reserve for non-tribal citizens. The taking of all species of invertebrates and fishes is prohibited by WDFW regulations.
The island-like nature of Orchard Rocks makes the use of shore-based interpretive materials difficult. Signage at the site is planned but will require altering the intertidal habitat to include the footing for the signs. The site and its restrictions are listed in the WDFW sportfishing pamphlet and a detailed description will be presented in informational materials on marine reserves. WDFW Enforcement Officers patrol the waters of the conservation area.
Most of the bedlands in the reserve were withdrawn for recreational uses by the Department of Natural Resources on behalf of the nearby State Park, while a small portion of the reserve bedlands are leased to the adjacent private aquaculture facility.
Volunteers proposed and sheparded the site for inclusion in WDFW's marine reserve system, however, there is currently no organized volunteer activity at the site.
Orchard Rocks serves as an important study site in WDFW's marine reserve monitoring program. The site was surveyed for rockfish abundance during 1986 and 1987 for a special study of habitat affinities. The transect sites and methodology served again in a more comprehensive study of fish communities at a fished site from 1995 to 1997. Since the site became a conservation area in 1998, WDFW scientists continue to conduct visual surveys using scuba diving in order to assess the fish populations within the reserve. Fish are identified, counted, and measured along four permanent transect corridors. These observations provide measures of fish density, size distributions, and reproductive effort that can be compared over time and with similar surveys conducted at nearby fished areas. Beginning in 1999, a nearby and similar rocky habitat at Point Glover was added as a fished site for reserve comparisons.
Orchard rocks is a remote site and not easily patrolled or signed. Therefore, the site may be more vulnerable to poaching than shore-based reserves.
The shallow and rocky nature of the site leaves it vulnerable to vessel groundings and to the accumulation of derelict fishing gear. Derelict gill nets have been observed in the conservation area. A navigational aid is fixed to the highest point of the rocks and minimizes the chances of vessel groundings, but the surrounding area is a high traffic area frequented by Washington State ferries, some of the largest naval vessels in the world, and by recreational and commercial vessels.
A large commercial aquaculture facility consisting of net pens containing Atlantic salmon is located at the eastern periphery of the conservation area. The bedlands in the eastern most portion of the Conservation Area are under lease from the Department of Natural Resources to the private facility. These bedlands, which are now within the Conservation Area, are used for anchoring the net pens. There are no known impacts to the site from net pen operations historically. Commercial net pen operations could cause negative impacts to the reserve when catastrophic releases occur, by enhancing fish waste in the passage, or by the flow through of antibiotics into the marine environment. Just to the south of Orchard Rocks is an experimental aquaculture facility that potentially could cause similar problems in the area.
Orchard Rocks is located several miles east of Bremerton, Sinclair Inlet, and the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. The inlet is documented to have high levels of toxic contaminants in the sediments. Whether these are transported to Orchard Rocks is unknown. Another naval facility to the southwest transfers fuel to naval vessels and poses the threat of oil spills to the reserve.
Since Orchard Rocks has a long history of consistent monitoring, performance measures can be established on the basis of fish community parameters. Rockfish abundances are now lower than they were in the mid-1980s. Having abundances recover to those levels is a natural management objective for the site.