By Ian Ferguson
For the first time in years, the public can now legally harvest clams, mussels and oysters in a section of western Drayton Harbor that has been closed to recreational shellfish harvesting for health reasons since 1999.
The season opened April 1 and is scheduled to stay open through October 31 as long as levels of fecal coliform bacteria and shellfish biotoxins in the area remain low. For those working to improve water quality in the area, the opening is a good sign.
“This is fantastic news,” said Julie Hirsch, a longtime advocate for improving local water quality. “It’s a sign that all the community efforts to fix the watershed are starting to bear fruit.”
Hirsch is the president of Hirsch Consulting Services, LLC, which has worked with various agencies to improve water quality in Drayton Harbor, Semiahmoo Bay and Cain Creek since 1999. Drayton Harbor was downgraded to “prohibited” status for shellfish harvesting that year because fecal coliform bacteria counts reached unsafe levels for human contact and shellfish consumption.
The land area draining into Drayton Harbor encompasses 53,102 acres of northwestern Whatcom County, including the Dakota Creek and California Creek watersheds. With so many potential sources of pollution, the process of cleaning up Drayton Harbor has been long and multi-faceted, with multiple community groups and government agencies working together.
Progress came after the Blaine Public Works department made years long improvements to the municipal sewer and stormwater runoff systems, the Port of Bellingham installed pump-out facilities for boats at Blaine Harbor and the county health department worked to educate the public about septic system maintenance and healthy watershed habits. It’s been a broad approach that has started to pay off, according to Erika Douglas from Whatcom County Public Works.
“Most of the problems in Drayton Harbor are from non-point sources, meaning we don’t have a single big source of pollution but we do have a lot of little sources. Improving the water quality comes down to a lot of people doing their part,” Douglas said.
The Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District’s citizens advisory board has helped spearhead many of the efforts to improve water quality. Other agencies such as the Nooksack Tribe and Washington Department of Ecology have helped by collecting water quality data from dozens of freshwater and marine water sampling sites.
The recreational opening is the latest sign of success, along with the growth of the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company, which harvests oysters on 30 acres in Drayton Harbor and recently opened a storefront in Blaine. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to local water quality, Douglas said.
“We are not yet at the ultimate point we want to be, which is a complete opening for commercial and recreational harvesting in Drayton Harbor,” she said. “It’s important that we continue working with landowners to identify and correct sources of fecal contamination.”
The city of Blaine’s latest efforts are focused on Cain Creek, which runs through downtown Blaine drains into Semiahmoo Bay, and also impacts certain areas of Drayton Harbor during strong ebb tides. The Blaine Clean Water Challenge is an effort to get local residents involved. Residents are encouraged to take small, easy measures that can have a big collective impact on the local watershed. A list of those actions can be found at ci.blaine.wa.us/804/Cain-Creek.
For hopeful shellfish harvesters, Drayton Harbor’s west beach is best accessed from Semiahmoo Park. Signs mark the boundaries of the open area.
Check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website for licensing information: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish.
Also, be sure to check the beach’s closure status online at fortress.wa.gov/doh/eh/maps/biotoxin/biotoxin.html or by calling 800/562-5632.
Although it remains open for now, the area is subject to closure if bacteria levels rise or if unsafe levels of marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning are found. Both fecal coliform bacteria and marine biotoxins can cause severe health hazards, so it’s important to check for beach closures and obey posted signage.
Volunteers are needed to help assess the harvesting sites on the western beaches of Drayton Harbor. Brief visitor counts on scheduled dates throughout the season can help officials determine how popular the beach is for recreational harvesting, how healthy the ecosystem is and whether people are respecting closures. For more information and to get involved, contact Austin Rose with Whatcom County Public Works – Natural Resources at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360/676-6876 extension 50259.