Rightconditions to determine oyster harvest

Published on Thu, Jun 10, 2004 by eg Olson

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Right conditions to determine oyster harvest

By Meg Olson

If the weather stays dry and the red tide moves on, the “farmers of the tideflats” will be able to start bringing in their crop next week, just in time for an open house to sample the locally grown oysters and applaud the efforts to improve water quality that made their harvest possible.

“This is an opportunity to celebrate our accomplishments and continue to reach out to people throughout the watershed,” said Geoff Menzies, the former Blaine oyster farmer who now coordinates volunteers for the community oyster farm and serves as chairman for the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee (DHSPDAC). “We will be dining on Drayton Harbor oysters if all goes well.”

On June 15, the state department of health plans to officially reopen shellfish beds in a 575-acre slice of the harbor, which was closed to shellfish harvesting almost 10 years ago.
State shellfish biologist Don Lennartson said monthly sampling established that levels of fecal coliform bacteria in harbor waters had dropped enough to meet state and federal health standards. The level of fecal coliform bacteria is an indicator of pollution by human and animal waste.

“The data set we use for analysis consists of the most recent 30 samples collected, so a lot of the high numbers from years past have dropped out and the more recent numbers are lower, due to a great deal of remedial effort,” he said. The state samples local waters monthly and an additional monthly sample is paid for through a contract from Whatcom County Water Resources Division to Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF). Both the Northwest Indian College and the volunteer oyster farmers perform additional monitoring of the creeks that feed the harbor and stormwater

The proposed area to be conditionally approved for shellfish harvest starts with a half-mile strip along the central portion of Semiahmoo spit, expands in the center of Drayton Harbor and then narrow down again to half a square mile of mudflats on the Blaine side. There is currently two acres of oysters ready for harvest on the Blaine side.

The state has imposed a condition on any shellfish harvest in the newly reopened area – dry weather. “Any time there is a half inch or more of rainfall within a 24-hour period, the harvest is closed for five days,” Menzies said. “Recent rains we’ve had probably would have triggered a closure.” The results of water quality sampling after a heavy rainfall have shown high fecal coliform levels, and only with those results set aside does the harbor meet standards, based on dry weather sampling alone, Menzies explained. A logical conclusion is that somewhere in the watershed, runoff washes pollutants into the harbor. The question is where and from what source, something DHSPDAC will be looking to study under a revised plan to restore the health of the harbor.

There is also the added complication of a red tide, or paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) alert for all Whatcom County beaches north of Birch Bay in place since May. Menzies said while PSP was detected in mussels at Semiahmoo Marina during the last week of May, the community oyster farm oysters were clean and he will continue sampling weekly until they get the go-ahead to harvest.

Finally, anything from a failing septic to a sewer spill has the potential to bounce Drayton Harbor back on the prohibited list. Menzies said they had a close call at the end of March when a dairy farmer pumping out his lagoon spilled some effluent into drainage ditches that lead into Dakota Creek. “This is just the kind of news you want to hear when you’re a month away from an upgrade that’s been 10 years in the making,” Menzies said wryly. Because of dry conditions and cooperation from the farmer Menzies said the spill had no detectable effect on the harbor but it highlighted the need to work more closely with the upland farm communities in the watershed.

While some of the oysters from the community oyster farm will be the main attraction at the June 19 open house and some smaller ones will head for local markets, most will be sold overseas to generate funds for ongoing water quality improvement. “If weather and tide cooperate we have a sample shipment of jumbo oysters going through a B.C. buyer to China,” Menzies said. “If they like the product we will harvest and ship most of it next fall.” He added Boundary Fish at the end of Marine Drive in Blaine would be washing, sorting, bagging and tagging oysters to prepare them for shipment.

The open house is more than an oyster feed, Menzies said. Dozens of individuals, groups and agencies will present their recent work to preserve water quality, plans for the future, and how anyone can play an important role in improving the health of local waters.

The Whatcom County planning department will be there to talk about the connection between how we use land and how it impacts water. The Lummi Nation will participate with their analysis of a recently conducted shellfish survey around Semiahmoo spit.

Menzies also said there will be displays describing the U.S./Canada shared waters roundtable and other international efforts.

Open House
June 19 noon - 4 p.m.
Blaine Harbor Office