The oyster farm in Drayton Harbor got a clean bill of health and was reopened for harvesting on April 17. It had been temporarily closed by the Washington State Department of Health after routine sampling on April 10 revealed unacceptable levels of fecal coliform in Drayton Harbor.
“The bacteria results were extremely elevated,” said Erika Douglas, senior planner for Whatcom County public works. “We take samples every month, and these were well above what our water quality standards allow.”
The contamination was found in the mouths of both California and Dakota creeks, which empty into the bay, and in multiple locations along the waterways. “Erika was very alarmed at the results,” said Bob Woolrich, shellfish growing area manager with the state department of health. “So she called us. We haven’t seen that kind of activity in a while.”
Fecal coliform is found in the waste of warm-blooded animals and accumulates in shellfish. If bacteria levels in samples taken from the shellfish beds or the creeks upstream are high enough, the seafood is considered unsafe to eat.
“Oysters are filter feeders,” Woolrich said. “But they’re indiscriminate feeders, and they take everything in, including bacteria. Since people eat them raw or lightly cooked, they can pose a serious health
Tests on April 16 showed the levels had returned to normal. “At this point, they’re fine, so we’re going to reopen the harbor to harvesting,” Woolrich said.
“Oysters aren’t like other foods that don’t have the ability to rid themselves of the contamination,” he continued. “They will filter up to 50 gallons of water in a day when conditions are right.”
Woolrich said that Drayton Harbor is typically closed to shellfish harvesting from November to February because of pollutants being flushed into the creeks by heavy rainfall, but it rarely happens this time of year.
“This is unusual,” he said. “But, when it rains heavily – not just your gentle all day sort of rain, but intense downpours – the ground doesn’t have a chance to soak it all in, so we assume it’s runoff from the ground around the creeks.”