Water cleaner where oysters are, but it’s not enough

Published on Thu, Nov 28, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Water cleaner where oysters are, but it’s not enough

By Meg Olson

As water quality in most of Drayton Harbor slowly gets better, hopes of harvesting oysters planted on the east side hinge on whether or not the state bases its decision to reclassify the harbor on the highly polluted water in Blaine Harbor marina.

“At the oyster beds water quality is improving,” said Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection Committee (DHSPDAC) president Geoff Menzies at the committee’s November 20 meeting. “How long are you going to hold us hostage to water quality in the marina and at the entrance?”

Menzies addressed his question to Jennifer Tebaldi, director of the state department of health’s (DOH) office of Food Safety and Shellfish Programs, in an October 30 letter. She answered a week later with conditions under which oysters could be harvested in one part of the harbor while another area still had high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.
“There is no reason that part of the harbor cannot be reopened by 2004 if classification criteria are met,” Tebaldi wrote.

The first criterion will be for oyster growing areas on the harbor’s east side to meet water quality standards to ensure shellfish harvested there are not a potential health hazard. “Shellfish areas are not allowed to be open when they are polluted,” Tebaldi wrote.

For an area to be open for harvesting the DOH has set the bar at the average of 30 monthly samples in a row being below a set fecal coliform standard. Shellfish growing areas on the harbor’s east side have been closed since 1995 when DOH samples stopped meeting that mark. By 1999, DOH closed the whole harbor as unsafe for commercial or recreational harvest. Since the initial closure DHSPDAC has been working with local and state agencies including the Port of Bellingham, the city of Blaine, the county, the Lummi Nation, and state departments of health and ecology, addressing everything from suspected sewer leaks to stormwater running into the harbor.

Last year the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm was formed and volunteer oyster farmers threw down the gauntlet, planting two acres of oyster seed in the prohibited beds. If pollution levels decline by 2004, they will have the first oyster harvest in Drayton Harbor in almost a decade.

“We’re looking pretty good,” Menzies said. “The trend is improving. We have the occasional high number but if you look at samples back to 1999, those stations all meet the standard.” He said high numbers only turned up after heavy rains wash runoff into the harbor.

While the southeastern half of the harbor is meeting state standards or close to it, the northern portion, especially the water in Blaine Harbor marina, is far from it. Of the 15 locations monitored by the Port of Bellingham within the marina, the five in the commercial area near the mouth of the marina show average fecal coliform levels ten times higher than what the state allows in shellfish areas. There are also high fecal coliform levels just outside the marina breakwater.

Tebaldi said even if oyster growing areas meet standards, they will only allow harvest if studies show water from the marina area doesn’t get to the oyster beds or is diluted enough when it gets there not to be a health risk. Specifically, she said they would need to demonstrate “the shellfish beds are not impacted by human fecal contamination,” which is more likely to cause disease than fecal contamination from other animals.
“That’s going to be the key,” Menzies said. “Either document that the source isn’t human or document with circulation studies that water from the marina doesn’t reach the beds.”

Ami Stillings from Whatcom County’s water resources division said there was DNA testing available to differentiate between fecal coliform bacteria from human and animal sources. “These methods are more reliable than they used to be but DOH has said it’s still too unreliable for them to consider it,” she said.

Menzies said a better first line of attack would be to continue circulation studies to show that tidal flushing does not push fecal coliform pollution across the oyster beds. “We’ve already done three different studies and we want to continue doing that,” he said. “Whatever they say we should do.”

In a November 21 response to Tebaldi he said the committee’s highest priority would be to work with the state on circulation studies looking at water movement at different depths. They would also conduct a dye test on a flood tide to determine how much dilution occurs as water moves from the marina entrance to the oyster beds.

If dye and circulation tests show there could be a strong connection between the marina and water quality at the oyster beds, Menzies said they would need to concentrate on cleaning up Blaine Harbor. He said the next step would be to work with the city on a dye test of sewer lines serving businesses along Marine Drive. “It’s not even on their project list right now,” Menzies said. “It’s a matter of getting it on there.”

Port of Bellingham representative Alan Birdsall said the port was inspecting liveaboards and peppering the marina with signs directing boaters to pumpout stations and educating boaters about the environmental sensitivity of the area. Menzies said Puget Sound Restoration Fund was also coordinating efforts to put several large signs at high traffic sports or anchorages in Drayton Harbor. He also suggested the port consider mandatory dye-testing of the plumbing on boats coming into Blaine Harbor, as is the practice at some Seattle area marinas.

“We’re at such a critical point here,” Menzies said. “It doesn’t take much to screw us up.”.

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