Drayton Harbor oyster farm suspends planting

Published on Thu, Jul 17, 2008 by Jack Kintner

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Drayton Harbor oyster farm suspends planting

By Jack Kintner

The Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm will suspend operations after its fall harvest, according to coordinator Geoff Menzies.

“We’re re-evaluating right now,” Menzies said, “and in fact we still have our conditional approval from the state, but being shut down by rain events 30 percent of the time along with the county’s not addressing some of the livestock pollution problems [in the watershed] has us sitting back and thinking about our next step.”

The two-acre shellfish farm received conditional approval to operate from the Washington State Department of Health in 2005.

The operation must be suspended when a “rain event” occurs, rainfall in the watershed exceeding three-quarters of an inch in 24 hours, as it could lead to increased pollution in the harbor.

Despite the small size – Menzies said that to be commercially viable the farm would need to be significantly larger – a lot of product has come out of the harbor.

Last May, Menzies and his volunteer crew harvested 30 1,200-pound tubs of oysters, which yielded 380 gallons of oysters worth $4,560.
“We have two or three loads left out there which we will try to get out in October or November if we can find a boat that can lift that weight. Loren Kapp with the Chief Kwina did the heavy lifting for this load in May,” Menzies said.

The boat is the former Lummi Island ferry and is the only one available locally that’s big enough to lift and carry that kind of weight.

The oysters are picked at low tide into bushel baskets that are poured into the tubs, which are buoyed. Then the Chief Kwina comes out at high tide and lifts them on deck.

“We also shipped about 700 bushels to Blau Oyster of Samish Island from October through May, which yielded over 500 gallons of shucked meats worth about $7,000. The balance of our sales ($12,000) were yearling oysters in the shell to area restaurants, to seafood retailers, and direct sales at the Bellingham Farmers Market and on the dock in Blaine, our local oyster lovers. They will be missed.”

Indeed, the small bivalves have their devoted fans, including such prestigious area restaurants as Nimbus and the Willows Inn.
Food critic Rowan Jacobsen described the Drayton Harbor Pacific Oyster as “rich and sweet, some of the best Pacifics I’ve ever had.”
But to be viable the farm needs to be larger, he said, in addition to having clean water in which to operate.

“The economics are totally tied to pollution. Clean water means you can work, but if you’re shut down 30 percent of the time October to May it’s a problem.

“The issue is one of continuing to put out seed when faced with little progress from the county in cleaning up the watershed by their own regulations that have been in force for several years, he said.

“You also have to float boats, pay for marketing, operate trucks and so on,” Menzies added that the Community Oyster Farm would have to plant at least five or more acres every year to be viable, “and to do that you have to plant a lot of seed and have equipment to lift large amounts of oysters in tubs weighing over half a ton.”

Menzies said that the state has a fecal pollution index for 94 shellfish growing areas around the state, “and Drayton Harbor has the worst index. There’s been no significant measurable improvement in water quality in Drayton Harbor for the last ten years.”

He laid the responsibility for this lack of improvement squarely in Whatcom County’s lap, specifically the department of planning and development services (PDS) which is charged with overseeing and enforcing the county’s ordinances regarding the operation of small-scale (less than one animal per acre) livestock operations.

“[We] still hold the operating lease, but we can’t afford to have people invest in the harbor right now until the county invests in it as well.” he said. Menzies specifically cited a January 2007 incident in which a small-scale livestock operation within the watershed had “issues, but it took the county two months to even get out there and look at the site, and by that time it’s too late to do anything.”

Menzies said it comes down to the fact that the county is good at planning and adopting plans, but things begin to break down when it comes time to implement and enforce them.

Oliver Grah, natural resources division manager at PDS, agreed in part. “We’re doing the best we can with the resources that have been allocated [to us] but would greatly benefit from increased staffing,” he said.

Currently, two staff people are assigned to the Conservation Program on Agricultural Lands (CPAL), agricultural planner Elke Doherty and a CPAL enforcement officer.

“A number of agencies are involved,” Grah said, “to support compliance with county regulations that are a part of the critical areas ordinance.”

Doherty finds operations that are in critical areas and connects them with the Whatcom Conservation District to provide technical assistance in developing a farm plan that will keep them in compliance with county regulations.

“Those that do not comply for one reason or another may then meet the enforcement officer,” Grah said.

Larger farms are classified as high impact operations and operate under the direct supervision of the state’s department of agriculture and department of ecology.

Menzies admitted that things are improving. The PDS has had regulatory authority for some years, but the program of information and enforcement as presently structured has only been in place for nine months.

“It comes down to being proactive, and the county is starting to do some things. Ideally, when they find high coliform bacteria counts they’ll find the problem, start talking to landowners and fix it.”