Tag Archives: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

Hope is alive for restoration of Puget Sound shellfish beds

Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800 net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.

The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale populations by 2020.

In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories “Bringing the shellfish back” and “Closing in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The 10,800-goal is especially challenging because it requires a net improvement in shellfish harvesting areas. That means when any shellfish beds are closed by pollution, that number counts against the total.

In 2011, about 4,000 acres of shellfish beds in Samish Bay near Bellingham were downgraded from “approved” to “conditionally approved,” which prohibits harvesting after significant amounts of rainfall. That downgrade was a devastating setback, a major reversal toward the 10,800-acre goal.

Officials in the Samish Bay watershed are working hard to clean up the pollution that caused the downgrade. Water-quality data show that they are getting closer to standards that will trigger an upgrade and resumption of year-round shellfish harvesting.

The pathway to reaching the 10,800-acre goal requires that Samish Bay be upgraded to its previous status to remove the 4,000-acre deficit, said Scott Berbells of the Washington State Department of Health’s Shellfish Program. In addition, several other growing areas with ongoing cleanup programs must be successful.

Trends in water quality are highly variable. They may show improvement for a time, then show a decline. That’s why it is difficult to predict whether improvements in a specific location will be enough to allow shellfish harvesting to resume.

Especially challenging are watersheds with a lot of livestock and aging septic systems located where the soils don’t absorb much water. The pollution problems can be overcome when property owners are willing to work on solutions with the help of available experts. Sometimes it requires enforcement actions.

Because success in cleaning up pollution is so dependent on the response from the community as a whole, I focused my primary story on Drayton Harbor near Blaine, where the community worked together to overcome pollution. Getting the community involved is considered critical to any successful pollution-cleanup effort, according to the Implementation Strategy being developed for Puget Sound shellfish restoration.

In Drayton Harbor, Geoff Menzies dedicated nearly 30 years of his life to restoring the shellfish beds, in part because he believed passionately in the quality of shellfish that can be grown in the bay. In 2003, Geoff and Betsy Peabody were named Local Heroes for Puget Sound by Gov. Gary Locke for starting a “community oyster farm” under the umbrella of Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Jeff and Betsy always believed that harvesting could be restored if the community were to take ownership of the problem.

Geoff Menzies during era of Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm.
Photo: Betsy Peabody

Geoff was also named an environmental hero by the group Resources for Sustainable Communities, and he was later honored by the Washington Environmental Council, Whatcom Land Trust and Environmental Protection Agency.

Leaders in shellfish-restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound always seem to reflect the real credit onto property owners in the watershed. That’s certainly the case in Samish Bay, where entire communities worked together to reduce the impacts of human sewage, for example.

When a community is confronted with a public health problem that prevents the harvesting of shellfish, the first natural reaction is to question the overall findings. After that, people begin to ponder whether there is a single major source of the problem, with a general tendency to blame others. When a community really comes together, people throughout the watershed begin to ask a question that ultimately leads to progress: “What can I do to help solve the problem?”

For information, including a list of actions that people can take, go to Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs for Shellfish Beds.

Olympia oysters fare better than Pacifics in acidified oceans

Our native Olympia oyster may seem small and meek, but its slow-growing nature may serve it well under future conditions of ocean acidification, according to a new study.

Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons
Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons

In fact, the tiny Olympia oysters appear to reproduce successfully in waters that can kill the offspring of Pacific oysters — a species that grows much larger and provides the bulk of the commercial oyster trade in Washington state.

Unlike Pacific oysters, Olympias don’t begin forming their shells until two or three days after fertilization, and the formation progresses slowly, helping to counteract the effects of corrosive water, according to the author of the new study, George Waldbusser of Oregon State University.

Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund said people who work with Olympia oysters have long suspected that they may have some advantages over Pacific oysters. Olympia oysters keep their fertilized eggs in a brood chamber inside the shell until the larvae are released into the water about two weeks later.

In contrast, the eggs of Pacific oysters are fertilized in the open water and the resulting larvae must fend for themselves right away.

While the brood chamber may protect the larvae from predators, the new study showed that the brood chamber does not protect against ocean acidification. Corrosive water still circulates through the mother’s shell, exposing the larvae.

To test how Olympia oysters would do in open waters, the researchers grew baby oysters outside the brood chamber where they were exposed to acidified water, noted Matthew Gray, a former doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He is now conducting research at the University of Maine.

“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to developing young, but we found it does not provide any physiological advantage to the larvae,” Gray said in an OSU news release. “They did just as well outside the brood chamber as inside.”

It appears that a major difference in the development of Pacific and Olympia oysters lies in their reproductive strategies, including differences in managing their energetics.

“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters, even though they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said. “Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring. Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with acidified water.”

The research team found that energy stores in young Pacific oysters declined by 38.6 percent per hour, compared to 0.9 percent in Olympia oysters. Pacific oysters put their energy into building their shells seven times faster than Olympia oysters. The exposure to acidified water affects shell development. While the larval oysters may get through the shell-building stage, they often don’t have enough energy left to survive, Waldbusser said.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of Limnology and Oceanography.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund has been working for nearly 20 years to restore Olympia oysters at 19 priority locations throughout Puget Sound. The new study lends credence to the effort and support for a recommendation by the 2012 Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel called for restoring the native oyster to Puget Sound to build resilience into the ecosystem, according to Betsy Peabody.

“It was a recommendation that came out before we had the critical science to support it,” Betsy told me. “He (Waldbusser) has just given us the underlying research that supports that recommendation. Our grandchildren may be cultivating Olympia oysters rather than Pacific oysters.”

The panel, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, called for maintaining the genetic diversity of native shellfish to provide the species a fighting chance against ecological changes brought on by climate change.

Benefits of the Olympia oyster, including so-called ecosystem services, are described in an article by Eric Wagner in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Healthy oyster reefs offer benefits such as cleaning up the water, protecting shorelines from erosion and increasing habitat complexity, which can expand the diversity of sea life.

So far, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has restored 50 acres of shellfish to Puget Sound, working toward a goal of restoring 100 acres by 2020.

Oyster hatcheries in Washington state underwent a temporary crisis a few years ago when Pacific oyster larvae were dying from acidified seawater pumped into the hatcheries. The water still becomes hazardous at times, but careful monitoring of pH levels has allowed hatchery operators to overcome the problem. When the water in an oyster hatchery moves beyond an acceptable pH level, operators add calcium carbonate to alter the pH and support the oyster larvae with shell-building material.

Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms said older oysters might be affected in the future as ocean acidification progresses. “We know things are going to get worse,” he told me.

Because of their small size and high cost of production, Olympia oysters will never overtake the Pacific oyster in terms of market share, Bill said, but they are in high demand among people who appreciate the history of our only native oyster and its unique taste.

The new research by Waldbusser raises the question of whether the highly commercial Pacific oysters could be bred so that their larvae grow slower and perhaps overcome the effects of ocean acidification.

Joth Davis, senior scientist for Puget Sound Restoration Fund and senior researcher for Taylor Shellfish, said the market is strong for a smaller Pacific oyster, so most growers would not object to one that grows more slowly with greater survival.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to maintain the genetic diversity of Olympia oysters and other native species, as growers begin to think about cultivating more natives. Transplanting species from one area to another and boosting their populations with hatcheries creates a potential to override local populations and weaken overall genetic diversity, Joth said.

Geoduck clams, which can be started in hatcheries and grown on a large scale, don’t appear to be genetically distinct from one place to another in Puget Sound, Joth said.

Researchers have found some evidence that Olympia oysters may be genetically distinct when comparing one area of Puget Sound to another. But finding genetic differences does not always mean the population is uniquely adapted to that area, Joth said. Variations might relate to a random population that settles in a specific location. Sometimes it takes careful study to make sense of the differences.

Rich Childers, Puget Sound shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state currently has no firm rules for transferring native species from one place to another. With growing interest in cultivating Olympia oysters, sea cucumbers and other native species, the agency is opening discussions about what kind of controls might be needed.

“We’ve learned lessons from salmon that you can’t spread everything from hell and gone,” Rich said. “Should we be looking at some management or hatchery guidelines that would help maintain genetic diversity? Should we have laws or policies? These are the questions that are just starting to surface.”

Student project could lead to official state oyster

Nobody was really talking about designating an official “Washington state oyster” until 14-year-old Claire Thompson came along. Now the state Senate has approved a bill, on a 47-1 vote, to list the Olympia oyster as the state’s official oyster.

Claire is an eighth grader at Olympia’s Nova School, which requires a yearlong project involving something that students care deeply about and can make a difference. Claire, who hopes to become a marine biologist or oceanographer, developed a sense of history for the once-prominent Olympia oyster, as we learned from her testimony before the Senate Governmental Operations Committee.

The full testimony on SB 6145 falls between 40:00 and 51:00 in the video on this page.

“Pollution near historic beds caused many closures of the fishery and rallied the oyster farmers to fight for the earliest pollution control regulations for clean water and cleanup,” Claire told the committee.

Ostrea lurida, the scientific name for the Olympia oyster, is the only native oyster to the region. The Pacific oyster, imported from Japan in the 1920s, makes up most of the production today, but the tiny Olympia is making a comeback as a unique delicacy with natural ties to the region.

Claire talked about ocean acidification, caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and its ongoing threat to the ecological health of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and other bays and estuaries.

“Ostrea lurida,” she said, “stands as a living symbol of Washington’s history, from the earliest Native Americans through the pioneers down through statehood to the present day, deserving protection as our native oyster. Please join me in fighting to protect not only our native oyster but our waters as well.”

Claire is the daughter of Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, who encouraged her to develop her project and speak before the Legislature.

Jim Jesernig of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association said he supports the bill, even though it came as a surprise to his group.

“We have been very pleased working with Claire,” Jesernig said. “It’s very interesting. From the industry, we did not see this. We were working on derelict vessels and a whole bunch of things going on. Claire has worked with folks in Willapa Harbor and the South Sound. We would like to support this in any way.”

If next approved by the house, the Olympia oyster will become the official state oyster, joining:

  • The orca, the official marine mammal;
  • The Olympic marmot, the official endemic mammal;
  • The willow goldfinch, the official bird;
  • The steelhead trout, the official fish; and
  • The common green darner dragonfly, the official insect.

By the way, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a nonprofit group, has been working for years to restore the Olympia oyster to Puget Sound. I first wrote about this issue in 1999 in a piece called “Native oyster making a comeback — with help.” A companion piece about the taste of the little oyster was titled “Olympia Oyster Gains Respect.” I also presented the tribal perspective in “Tribal Officials Welcome Oyster Restoration.”

Since then, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has helped rebuild native oyster populations in many bays, with one of the greatest successes in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Betsy Peabody, executive director, told me this morning that her group has great hopes for success in Dyes Inlet near Silverdale and in Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap. A new oyster hatchery in Manchester is expected to be in operation later this year.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a long-term restoration plan for the Olympia oyster with 19 areas listed for habitat restoration:

Drayton Harbor
Bellingham Bay (South) Shoreline, Portage Island, and Chuckanut Bay
Samish Bay
Padilla Bay
Fidalgo Bay
Similk Bay
Sequim Bay
Discovery Bay
Kilisut Harbor
Port Gamble Bay
Quilcene Bay
Union River/Big and Little Mission Creek(s) deltas
Liberty Bay and sub-inlets
Dyes Inlet and sub-inlets
Sinclair Inlet
Point Jefferson-Orchard Point complex of passages and inlets
Budd Inlet
Henderson Inlet
Harstine/Squaxin Islands complex of passages and inlets

Let us not forget about the native abalone

Occasionally, I’m caught totally unaware of some bit of information that I come across in a newspaper or magazine. Such was the case with reporter Craig Welch’s story in Sunday’s Seattle Times, which was reprinted in the Kitsap Sun today.

<i>Abalone being reared in a hatchery in Port Gamble</i><br><small>Seattle Times photo by Steve Ringman</small>
Abalone is being reared in a hatchery in Port Gamble for planting this summer.
Seattle Times photo by Steve Ringman

The story was about abalone, a mollusk that populates rocky reefs in various locations throughout our inland sea. I’ve been hearing about efforts to restore abalone populations, and I’ve wondered what happened to these creatures. After all, it hasn’t been legal to fish for them for 15 years.

Craig Welch briefly discussed a poaching network in his story, but this was what caught my attention:

Thirty years ago, one-fifth of abalone were small. Today only 2 percent are. Average abalone shell sizes have grown larger. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t poachers want the biggest ones?’ ” said Don Rothaus, a Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Then they hit upon an obvious answer: The creatures were getting old but not reproducing. The same peculiar biological tic that made abalone easy prey for thieves also, in the end, appeared to be their downfall.

Poachers weren’t taking more because abalone no longer clustered in quantities big enough to make it worth their while.

So many abalone had been removed from Puget Sound that those remaining lived too far apart to congregate. They couldn’t get close enough to mate.

And so the pinto abalone found in Washington waters are on the edge of extinction, listed as a “species of concern” by the National Marine Fisheries Service. That listing means that the species might qualify for a listing as “threatened” or “endangered” if more data about their populations and life cycle were available. (See the NMFS fact sheet.)

After reading the Times story, I called Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund to get the latest information on the abalone restoration program. She was the first to tell me about the abalone effort three years ago. It quickly became clear from our conversation that a lot has been happening with the involvement of people from all kinds of organizations.

Craig Welch mentioned an abalone hatchery, which was built alongside Weston’s environmental laboratory in Port Gamble.

Researchers are developing hatchery populations and working hard to make sure that they are not decreasing the diversity of abalone or introducing disease to native populations.

An out-planting of the abalone is planned for this summer in several locations. Like the effort to restore Olympia oysters to Puget Sound (See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 2, 2006), the effort to bring back the abalone is expected to be long and involved — but at least it has started.