Western Washington: Pollution threatens shellfish in 12 counties

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter

July 8, 2003

More Washington oyster and clam beds are threatened by pollution than any time in the past five years, with shellfish areas in 12 counties on the verge of not meeting water-quality standards.

Nearly 15 percent of the state's 314 licensed commercial shellfish growers could see harvest restrictions if counties and local health officials don't find ways to reduce the amount of human or animal waste streaming into some 20 tideflats, according to the state Department of Health.

For each of the past seven years, the department has issued a list of shellfish-growing bays where water samples showed elevated fecal coliform counts. Fecal coliform, found in human and animal waste, can be an indicator of other, more harmful pathogens.

The list is an "early warning system" that lets public officials and shellfish growers know that they face closure if the trend isn't reversed.

This year, the list includes 20 bays the most ever from Grays Harbor on the Pacific Coast, to Dungeness Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, to Annas Bay at the bend of Hood Canal in Mason County.

It also marks the first time San Juan and Jefferson counties have had shellfish-growing areas with elevated fecal coliform counts.

"It's kind of a watchlist, if you would," said Bob Woolrich, manager of the Health Department's shellfish-growing-area program. "These areas, for the time being, meet public-health standards, but they're not meeting them easily."

Typically, the problem is the result of failing septic systems, farm runoff that sends livestock waste into bays or excessive fecal matter from birds, land mammals such as dogs or other wildlife.

For shellfish growers, especially small family operations, the future of their livelihood can rest on a pollution problem outside their responsibility or control.

Sometimes it can be easily traced, such as in Oakland Bay in Mason County, home to shellfish operations that harvest millions of clams a year. The area has been on and off the list for years as the county struggled to deal with old sewage systems.

But in other areas, investigations merely serve to confuse the source of the pollution. After water samples showed a problem in Thurston County's Henderson Inlet, for example, a more detailed analysis found the sources to be as varied as dogs, foxes, other domestic pets, raccoons, waterfowl and failing septic systems, which made it difficult to pinpoint precisely who or what was most responsible.

"It's hard to know where to begin fixing a problem like that," said Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

In San Juan County's Buck Bay, where Mark Sawyer's family has farmed clams and oysters since the 1930s, health officials recently found elevated fecal coliform levels in a water sample.

State officials believe some failing sewage systems that have since been corrected might have been to blame; Sawyer believes it's likely from an influx of Canada geese.

"When I was younger, seeing geese was a rare thing," Sawyer said. "You'd see maybe one or two. But in the last five years, there are hundreds of them. I think it's too early in the game to say if we've got a problem, but I definitely need to keep an eye on it."

While the number of potentially problem sites typically has been between 12 and 18 until this year, the news isn't all bad.

Pollution has declined enough in some areas since 1995 that health officials have reopened more than 7,000 acres of shellfish beds previously closed by pollution.

"It doesn't suggest that we're going to hell in a handbasket, but neither does it suggest we're adequately fixing our problems," Downey said.


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