Volunteers dig in to bring back oysters, clean waters

Published on Thu, May 31, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Volunteers dig in to bring back oysters, clean waters

By Meg Olson

“What’s going on down there?” asked a motorist on Peace Portal Drive, slowing down to watch a dozen people in hip-waders stomping around in the mud in the northeast corner of Drayton Harbor. They were staking out oyster beds, he was told, an activity the harbor hasn’t seen for over half a decade.

Volunteers for the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm had a crash course in oyster farming and water quality on the morning of May 25, then headed out to select and stake two acres of prime tideland. Using volunteer labor, donated seed and donated dollars, the goal of the program is to have a bumper crop of oysters ready for harvest in three years. The catch is, if water quality hasn’t improved by then, the whole harvest will go in the trash.

“Our major objective is to reopen shellfish harvesting in Drayton Harbor - commercial, recreational and tribal,” said Geoff Menzies, project organizer and president of the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District (DHSPD) advisory committee. “One of the things that has been missing is a community understanding of this resource. Rather than sitting in a meeting where the issue is rather abstract, this makes the resource real.”

Menzies was the last oyster farmer in Drayton Harbor, put out of business when the state department of health closed part of the harbor in 1995 due to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria in the water. Water quality degraded further in subsequent years, leading the state to further downgrade the status of the harbor. All shellfish

harvesting is now prohibited in the entire harbor.

Coordinated through DHSPD, local and state agencies, businesses and tribes have been working to target potential pollution sources - from problems with the Blaine sewer system and septic systems at the south end of the harbor to seagulls hanging around the fish plants and manure from upstream farms. Though the numbers haven’t turned around, there has been increasing cooperation between agencies under the guidance of a consultant hired to manage the county’s two shellfish protection districts, which Menzies said is leading to a clearer picture of what needs to be done to get the state department of health (DOH) to declare shellfish grown in the harbor safe to eat.

“We got our marching orders,” Menzies said of a May 24 meeting of the agencies implementing the 1995 closure response strategy for the harbor. “We need to focus on the six years we’ve been working and give the state department of health a breakdown of all the improvements,” he said. “There are still some priorities in the closure response strategy that haven’t been accomplished. We need to consolidate those into a hit list.” Topping that list is fixing Blaine’s limping sewer system – patching leaking pipes under Marine Drive, stopping overflows and moving closer to a long-term solution for treating the city’s waste. Another high priority will be getting the harbor declared an area of special concern by Whatcom County, which will put extra scrutiny on activities that could impact water quality.

Menzies said the oyster farm will act like a ticking clock to galvanize community support for and involvement in efforts to improve water quality in the harbor.

Friday’s crew was galvanized. “We’re farmers of the tidelands now!” said Betsy Peabody of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF), strapping on a brand new pair of hip-waders. PSRF first became involved through Trillium Corporation’s desire to fund water quality improvement projects in Drayton Harbor and Peabody is coordinating funding for the community oyster farm. The $200,000 three-year budget to get the project started will come from cash and in-kind donations from a long list of participants: Trillium, the state department of ecology, Whatcom County and others.

The Puget Sound Water Quality Action team is providing $5,000 initial capital for the first three months of the project. “The list of partners is growing everyday,” Peabody said. An application to Social Venture Partners for the $130,000 cash support needed is now under review.

Individuals and organizations from both sides of the border provide sweat-equity. In four hours Friday afternoon volunteers sampled close to 30 acres of tideland for density of oysters and predatory oyster drills, small snails that eat through oyster shells. They selected the two acres with the fewest predators for the community farm. Using alder stakes that would still show at high tide, volunteers marked the corners of the planting area. They’ll be back June 7-9 to start the seeding process, setting out 300 bags, almost 2 million tiny oysters, donated by Rockpoint Oyster Company. “By the end of June we’ll have two acres planted,” Menzies said.

“We’re trying to support this initiative because we want to see water quality improve on this side and on our side of the border,” said one volunteer, David Riley of White Rock, a member of the Friends of Boundary Bay. “It’s obvious you can’t clean water up to a border and stop.”

“People look at the big problem and won’t take the little steps to do something,” said Bernard Charles, former chief of the Semiahmoo First Nation. “Until the public realizes how big a problem it is and takes those steps, it’ll just keep getting worse.” Charles remembers harvesting oysters in Drayton Harbor as a child. “They were everywhere. You could just stand in one spot and fill up a basket. They were wonderful.”

Drayton Harbor oysters are wonderful enough that Blau Oyster Company in Skagit County has agreed to buy the entire harvest if the project is successful. “Drayton Harbor oysters are legendary,” Peabody said. “The fact that someone has committed to buying ours three years down the road is a testament to that.”

Conditions in the harbor combine to produce meaty, thin shelled oysters. “One of the reasons Drayton Harbor oysters are so beautiful is that most of the day, they’re like this: soft mud, calm, protected,” said department of health shellfish specialist Don Lennartson, also a volunteer oyster farmer. Menzies said the harvest, after a fine community oyster feed, should generate at least $20,000 in revenue that will be funneled into water quality projects through PSRF. The big payback will not be in revenue, Menzies said, but in the increased potential of the harbor. “The door is cracked open for someone who might want to grow oysters commercially in Drayton Harbor again, as a banner the community can wave. Oysters can be a big draw,” he said. Whether he would be willing to get back in the business would depend on whether there were policies in place and a community momentum to protect water quality. He doesn’t want to have to pull up stakes again.

Friday’s volunteers, including Blaine public works assistant director Steve Banham and planning commissioner Ken Trupp, took home a fondness for the harbor and the potential harvest that Menzies hopes is contagious.

“I feel like I know Drayton Harbor a lot better, like it’s my friend now,” Margaret Cuthbert said.

“When we worked down here it felt like our own little world,” Menzies responded. “Nobody comes down here, they think its a mudhole, that Drayton Harbor is dead. Drayton Harbor is not dead. Just look at all the life around here,” he said, pointing to lines of heron feeding and a pair of pelicans flying overhead. “We just can’t harvest oysters. Not yet.”.

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