Tag Archives: Shellfish

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.”

Map points toward safe — and hazardous — shellfish

A highly informative map, just released by state shellfish officials, can show you at a glance where it is safe to harvest shellfish in Western Washington.

Shellfish_map

Besides pointing out the locations of public beaches where recreational harvesters may safely gather clams and oysters, the new map provides links to information about the approved seasons and limits, with photographs of each beach. One can choose “map” or “satellite” views, as well as enhanced images to simplify the search.

If you wish, you can track down locations by searching for the name of a beach, nearby landmarks or the address. You can obtain the latest information about entire shorelines as well as specific beaches.

The map was created by the Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, a division within the Washington State Department of Health.

Jim Zimny, recreational shellfish specialist at Kitsap Public Health District, said he expects the map to be updated immediately when new health advisories are issued.

“It’s a great resource, very easy to use,” Jim said.

Jim works with state shellfish officials to collect shellfish samples and report results, including findings of paralytic shellfish poison, a biotoxin. Closures are announced when high levels of PSP or dangerous bacteria are found. Hood Canal, for example, is covered with the letter “V,” meaning one should cook shellfish thoroughly to kill Vibrio bacteria, which can lead to intestinal illness.

Since I generally write the geographic descriptions of shellfish closure areas, I can assure you that looking at a map will be a better way to see what is going on.

A news release about the new map points out that the risk of eating shellfish increases in summer. That’s why it especially important in summer to follow the three C’s of shellfish safety: “check, chill and cook.”

Those three C’s refer to checking the map for health closures and looking on the beach for warning signs; chilling the shellfish to avoid a buildup of bacteria; and cooking to 145 degrees to kill pathogens. (Cooking does not destroy PSP and other biotoxins, so it’s important to avoid closed areas.)

For additional information about recreational shellfish harvesting, including a “Shellfish Harvest Checklist,” visit the Department of Health website.

Washington now has an official state oyster

Washington state now has an official state oyster, thanks to the lobbying efforts of 14-year-old Claire Thompson, who raised the prominence of the Olympia oyster as part as a school project. That’s assuming, of course, that the governor signs the bill.

I talked about Claire’s effort, along with Olympia oyster restoration projects, in a previous Water Ways post on Feb. 14.

The bill designating Ostrea lurida as the state oyster first passed the Senate Feb. 13 on a 47-1 vote. It was approved March 5 in the House, 94-4, after an amendment expanded the language of the bill to this:

“This native oyster species plays an important role in the history and culture that surrounds shellfish in Washington state and along the west coast of the United States. Some of the common and historic names used for this species are Native, Western, Shoalwater, and Olympia.”

The Senate then agreed to the amendment and passed the bill into law today, again on a 47-1 vote. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane, was the only dissenting voice in the Senate.

Opponents in the House were Reps. Richard DeBolt, Chehalis; Brad Klippert, Kennewick; Jason Overstreet, Lynden; and Rep. Elizabeth Scott, Monroe. All are Republicans.

When Claire testified on the Senate bill in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, she looked toward the future. When she testified on the earlier House version, she was looking to the past. You can hear her testimony in the viewer on this page, or at 56:40 on TVW.

Here’s what she said, in part, to the House committee:

“The last time I came to testify I talked about the history of this oyster. This time I would like to talk to you about what I hope is the future of this oyster…

“I am only 14 and most of my life still lies ahead. To make my future and the futures of all the kids who live around Puget Sound better, I would like you to not only pass this bill but get as many of these and other bivalves seeded and into the Puget Sound as quickly as possible. This is because these oysters filter the water and can help regulate harmful algal blooms, including the red tide. By keeping algae down, they increase the overall oxygen content for fish and crustaceans and all the other animals.

“In the large numbers that Puget Sound needs, these oysters can link together to build coral-reef-like structures that provide an ecosystem habitat of room and hiding for young sea animals and all the kelps and sea plants that we are losing… Oyster beds this thick keep sediments anchored and the entire Puget Sound in balance.”

Geoducks test OK, but what’s behind Chinese ban?

Now it is up to Chinese officials to decide upon shellfish imports to their country, as uncomfortable as that may be for U.S exporters. I’ve begun to learn about international trade policies to better understand the confusing actions of Chinese health authorities.

As you’ve probably heard by now, officials with the Washington State Department of Health have concluded from a new round of testing that arsenic in geoducks from Poverty Bay presents no legitimate health concern. That seems to contradict findings from Chinese health authorities, who cited high levels of arsenic in Poverty Bay geoducks when they suspended shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast.

Unfortunately, the Chinese have failed to reveal how they came to their findings, and they discarded all the geoducks used in their tests. Divers from the Washington Department of Natural Resources collected new geoducks from Poverty Bay, and state health experts conducted new tests. The findings were released Tuesday, and I covered that in some detail in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription). Also, check out Water Ways, Dec. 24, to understand the different types of arsenic.

USTR report

Results from the Washington state health lab showed that arsenic levels in all parts of the geoduck came in under the Chinese limit of 0.5 parts per million, except for the skin. Dave McBride, a toxicologist for the state health department, told me that cooks in both China and the U.S. blanch the geoduck to remove the inedible skin, so that’s not a factor.

But even if one consumes the whole geoduck, tests on the “whole body” found only one composite sample out of 12 that exceeded the Chinese standard. Of course, it would have been more convincing if none of the whole-body samples came in above 0.5 ppm.

A private lab also tested geoducks from Poverty Bay, and those results came in even lower. The differing findings probably resulted from the different methods used, Dave McBride told me. It might be wise to try to reconcile the differences and report the scientific uncertainty (possible range) represented by the two techniques.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun talking to experts on Chinese trade, who say it is not unusual for governments around the world to use alleged health concerns to gain a trade advantage.

As I reported in yesterday’s story, the U.S. Trade Representative, a presidential cabinet post, reported to Congress at the end of last year about what appeared to be unjustified health concerns blocking a variety of agricultural imports into China:

“In 2013, serious problems have remained for U.S. exporters, who are faced with nontransparent application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, many of which have appeared to lack scientific bases and have impeded market access for many U.S. agricultural products.

“China’s seemingly unnecessary and arbitrary inspection-related import requirements also continued to impose burdens and regulatory uncertainty on U.S. agricultural producers exporting to China in 2013 … Products most affected in 2013 included poultry, pork and beef.”

Dongsheng Zang, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in Chinese trade, and Debra Glassman, faculty director of the UW’s Global Business Center, helped me understand the trade situation for yesterday’s story. Here are some of the key points I came away with:

  • Chinese officials don’t always base their decisions on the best evidence,, even though agreements under the World Trade Organization require them to do so. In 2011, China stopped imports of oysters from Washington state following reports of a few people getting sick from eating raw oysters from Hood Canal. Zang says Chinese officials based their actions only on “media reports.”
  • Import bans often come quickly and take a long time to resolve. That happens not just in China but in other countries and the European Union, especially when the dispute must be resolved by the World Trade Organization.
  • International agreements require that any import restrictions must be the “least-trade-restrictive” to protect the public, such as banning shellfish from specific bays where problems are identified, Glassman said.
  • The Chinese ban on U.S shellfish could be designed for a domestic audience inside China. “I can only speculate,” Zang said. “Food safety is a huge issue in China. It’s really hard to say whether this (geoduck ban) is about public health or domestic policy.”

An official in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington, D.C., told me (on background) that the office is watching this issue closely. If the shellfish ban develops into a full-fledged trade dispute, that office will become involved.

I realize that geoduck harvesters and government officials don’t want to accuse the Chinese of acting inappropriately. They just hope that the ban will be lifted without a drawn-out dispute. Meanwhile, those in the industry are losing millions of dollars by being shut off from their most important market for the giant clams.

Amusing Monday: Getting out of an oyster stew

I was looking about for some jokes and stories involving shellfish, mainly about clams and oysters with maybe a few quips about mussels. All I could find was either too raunchy, too childish or just plain lame.

What I did discover on YouTube, however, is that clam chowder is funnier than clams, and oyster stew is funnier than oysters.

First, in the video player at right, is “The Clam Chowder Song” by Thessaly Lerner, whose comedy is all over the place, including a series of bits she calls Ukulady, geared mainly for kids.

You may have seen this Progresso soup commercial on television. And if you’re a fan of Jim Carrey, you’ll recall this moment from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

A classic seafood battle is Curly’s skirmish with the oyster in a Three Stooges comedy that I remember from years ago. I was happy to find it posted on YouTube with context from the story. If you want to skip directly to the oyster part, you’ll find it at 1:45.

While not about oyster stew, I found a poster I want to share for the oddity of it all (below). The poster is one of three used in an ad campaign to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless. The campaign, launched by the German magazine “Biss,” shows one person inside the shell of a snail, another inside the shell of a turtle and a third inside the shell of an oyster a clam. Below each image are the words, “Nature doesn’t provide everyone with a home.” See AdPunch for details.

Although I wasn’t able to locate enough worthy shellfish jokes to share, you may find some amusement in previous “Amusing Monday” postings about shellfish:

“The fear of seafood”

“Geoducks are serious business”

“Geoduck companion appears on ‘Prairie’”

“Ivar knew how to clam it up”

Experts make progress on state shellfish initiative

Work on the Washington State Shellfish Initiative is shifting into high gear, as I learned yesterday during a meeting of the Shellfish Initiative Advisory Group.

The initiative is being directed by a “core group,” made up of representatives from seven state and federal agencies. Advice is coming from a much larger advisory group in quarterly meeings like the first one yesterday. See “Purpose Statement” (PDF 44 kb) for details.

Manchester Research Station
NOAA photo

During the meeting, the group reviewed progress on a work plan that includes more than 30 different tasks, each assigned to a small working group. I made notes on many of the projects, which I’ll share with you in future news stories or blog entries.

I did focus on one Kitsap County project with relevance for the entire Puget Sound region: a new oyster hatchery at Manchester Research Station to produce baby Olympia oysters. It will be part of an ongoing effort to restore the native Olympias. See the story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

One anonymous person commented at the bottom of the story: “Hey, an organization that actually accomplishes something! Keep up the good work and don’t get bogged down in doing studies and producing reports that no one will read or respond to.”

I understand why people are sometimes frustrated by the planning that seems to go on and on. But without planning, I’m not sure who would grap the limited money. Without planning, the projects would have no focus and the work would be done haphazardly.

Continue reading

Let’s keep an eye on the shellfish initiative

It is interesting to contemplate how the new National Shellfish Initiative, announced in June, and the Washington Shellfish Initiative, announced last week, could change things in Puget Sound.

Newton Morgan of the Kitsap County Health District collects a dye packet from Lofall Creek in December of 2010. This kind of legwork may be the key to tracking down pollution in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

As I described in a story I wrote for last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun, the principal goals are these:

  • Rebuild native Olympia oyster and pinto abalone populations.
  • Increase access to public tidelands for recreational shellfish harvesting.
  • Research ways to increase commercial shellfish production without harming the environment.
  • Improve permitting at county, state and federal levels.
  • Evaluate how well filter-feeding clams and oysters can reduce nitrogen pollution, with possible incentives for private shellfish cultivation.

To read more about the initiatives, check out:

One of the most encouraging things is an attempt to expand Kitsap County’s Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program to other counties, with increased funding for cleaning up the waters. Check out the story I wrote for last Friday’s Kitsap Sun, in which I describe the search-and-destroy mission against bacterial pollution.

As most Water Ways readers know, I’ve been following the ongoing monitoring and cleanup effort by the Kitsap County Health District for years with the help of Keith Grellner, Stuart Whitford, Shawn Ultican and many others in the district’s water quality program. In fact, just two weeks ago, I discussed what could be a turnaround for a chronic pollution problem in Lofall Creek, a problem that has taken much perseverance to resolve. (See Kitsap Sun, Dec. 2.) Unfortunately, the story is far from over.

I’ve talked about the importance of old-fashioned legwork in tracking down pollution, and I’ve suggested that other local governments use some of their stormwater fees or implement such fees for monitoring of their local waters. See Water Ways, June 30, for example.

Water free of fecal pollution has benefits for humans and other aquatic creatures. Thankfully, Washington State Department of Health’s shellfish program is careful about checking areas for signs of sewage before certifying them as safe for shellfish harvesting. Maybe the new shellfish initiative will allow the state to open beds that have been closed for years. That’s what happened in Yukon Harbor, where more than 900 acres of shellfish beds were reopened in 2008. (See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008).

Certifying areas as safe for shellfish harvesting means that waterfront property owners are safe to enjoy the bounty of their own beaches. It also offers an opportunity for commercial growers to make money and contribute to the state’s economy.

Of course, this does not mean that intensive shellfish-growing operations ought to be expanded to every clean corner of Puget Sound, any more than large-scale crop farming or timber harvesting should be allowed to take over the entire landscape.

Some environmentalists have expressed concern that the Washington Shellfish Initiative could become a boondoggle for commercial shellfish growers. Laura Hendricks of the Sierra Club’s Marine Ecosystem Campaign sent me an e-mail noting these concerns about the expansion of aquaculture:

“Washington State has more native species listed as endangered than any other state in the USA. We see no mention of the adverse impacts in this initiative on nearshore habitat, birds and juvenile salmon.

“Governor Gregoire and the various speakers failed to mention that ALL of the pending shoreline aquaculture applications they want to ‘streamline’ are for industrial geoduck aquaculture, not oysters. Red tape is not what is delaying these applications…

“Shellfish industry lobbyists who pushed for this expansion are silent on the following three serious threats to our fisheries resources, forage fish, birds and salmon:

“1. Shellfish consume fisheries resources (zooplankton — fish/crab eggs and larvae) according to peer reviewed studies. A DNR study documented that forage fish eggs did not just stay buried high on the beach, but were found in the nearshore water column. Continuing to allow expansion of unnatural high densities of filtering shellfish in the intertidal “nursery,” puts our fisheries resources at risk.

“2. The shellfish growers place tons of plastics into Puget Sound in order to expand aquaculture where it does not naturally grow…

3. Mussel rafts are documented to reduce dissolved oxygen essential for fish and are known in Totten Inlet to be covered in invasive tunicates with beggiatoa bacteria found underneath…”

Ashley Ahearn of KUOW interviewed Laura Hendricks, and you can hear her report on EarthFix.

In her e-mail, Laura recommended the video at right. She also pointed to a blog entry by Alf Hanna of Olympic Peninsula Environmental News. Hanna suggests that environmental advocates who go along with commercial aquaculture may become the oysters that get eaten in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

Have intensive shellfish farms in Puget Sound gone too far in their efforts to exploit the natural resources of our beaches? Can shellfish farmers make money without undue damage to the environment? Which practices are acceptable, which ones should be banned, and which areas are appropriate for different types of aquaculture?

It would have been nice if these answers were known long ago, and in some cases they are. But at least this new shellfish initiative recognizes that more research is needed to answer many remaining questions. Research is under way in Washington state on geoduck farming, which involves planting oyster seed in plastic tubes embedded into the beach. Review “Effects of Geoduck Aquaculture on the Environment: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge” (PDF 712 kb) or visit Washington Sea Grant.

Other research in our region is needed as well, although it is clear that environmental trade-offs will be part of the deal whenever commercial interests cross paths with natural systems. For a discussion about this issue, check out the executive summary of the NOAA-funded publication Shellfish Aquaculture and the Environment (PDF 4.2 mb), edited by Sandra E. Shumway.

Needless to say, we’ll be keeping an eye on this process for years to come.

Dispute over tribal access to shellfish enters new phase

Brief note: I was on vacation last week. Did you miss me? I managed to write a couple blog entries and keep up on the news for the “Water, Water Everywhere” listing at the top of this page. But vacations tend to pull me away. So now I’m back on the job. By the way, does anybody check the listings for water news, research findings, government actions or upcoming events? I’d like to know if someone finds this feature useful.

It was not a huge surprise that Northwest tribes rejected nearly half the commercial shellfish beaches put forth by commercial growers. We’re still talking about the $33 million legal settlement, of course. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

If you recall, I have been talking about the potential conflicts since the day the agreement was signed in a ceremony at a shellfish farm near Shelton (Kitsap Sun, July 6, 2007). Check out the other stories I wrote on July 6, 2007; Jan. 4, 2008; March 9, 2008; Aug. 15, 2008; and Oct. 9, 2008.

What it comes down to, I believe, was an eagerness on the part of commercial growers to get a settlement using state and federal dollars. Without an agreement, the parties would have faced turmoil as they tried to figure out how the tribes could gain access to commercial beaches and how they would take advantage of “natural” production around cultivated shellfish without destroying the livelihood of an entire industry.

Given what has taken place, I suspect that most people involved wish that specific properties had been named in the settlement agreement, rather than resorting to a list of criteria that allows for subjective judgments about which properties meet or do not meet the standards.

If the wrangling over properties had taken place before the agreement was signed, would things have come out different? If today’s frustration by growers had been experienced before the agreement was signed, would there even be an agreement today?

Tribal officials knew that the settlement agreement was not going to allow every beach to qualify as a commercial shellfish bed. Now we can see where the tribal lawyers are headed. We don’t yet know, however, whether other tribal leaders will allow for more flexibility.

You may download the full list of properties and the reasons they were rejected in a document filed in federal court titled “Treaty Tribes’ Request for Dispute Resolution” (PDF 2 mb). The document also spells out precisely the various criteria that must be met under the settlement agreement.

Every one of the 864 parcels submitted by the growers is unique, and at least half of them could be the subject of long and involved arguments about whether they qualify under the agreement. So far, I’ve chosen not to take the considerable time it would require to lay out all pro and con arguments for any property.

Instead, let me give you an example of how there can be gray areas in this dispute. Dave Steele, who has worked with many growers, says he has seen cases similar to this:

A group of neighbors who own tidelands get together and hire an experienced person to harvest their beaches. The owners split the proceeds. The area has been certified as safe by state health officials, but the beaches were never officially listed as a shellfish farm. Different companies harvest the beaches in different years, but they don’t keep records for individual parcels. The beaches may be planted. Folks may take steps to exclude starfish and other predators. The owners get a steady income year after year.

Does this sound like a commercial shellfish operation, or just a bunch of residents selling shellfish from their beaches? What are the key elements that make it commercial or strictly residential?

This is how the arguments are stacking up. If nothing is worked out, a federal judge could be faced with going through this kind of exercise.