Oyster harvesters not standing still
The Drayton Harbor community oyster farm is getting ready to head into its fifth year with new growing techniques, a fresh crop and the prospect of being able to reinvest profits in the health of the harbor.
“We’re plugging right along,” said oyster farm coordinator Geoff Menzies. With spawning season over at the end of the summer, oyster farm volunteers have been skirting the rains that trigger a harvest closure to pull off the jumbo oysters first seeded in 2001 and the tiny cocktail oysters that were planted in July. Now harvesting in the middle of the night, the volunteer farmers can pull over 100 dozen oysters out of the harbor in a single harvest, the big ones heading for China and the little ones to local markets. “Since October we’ve sent six loads to China, 800 dozen oysters,” Menzies said.
In winter the oyster farmers’ efforts are complicated by the state department of health’s conditional approval of the harbor for shellfish harvest. Following any rainfall of half an inch or more harvesting is prohibited for five days because monitoring of the harbor has linked rainfall to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which have been linked to human health concerns. From the end of September when harvesting started to November 6 there were eight rain closures for a total of 28 days. “In spite of that we were still able to work around the closures and get product out to local buyers,” Menzies said, like Willows Inn on Lummi Island and Vis Seafoods in Bellingham. The rain closures are slowing down the harvest of the large oysters destined for the Chinese market that were already put six weeks behind by a manure lagoon spill last summer, and Menzies said they won’t be marketable unless they’re all harvested this winter.
Some of the revenue from the sale of oysters went to reseed an acre of tideflats during the summer, and some went to try a new method. Individual tiny oysters were purchased from the Lummi Shellfish Hatchery and grown in trays until they were big enough to be transferred to long mesh sleeves which were then suspended on posts a foot above the tideflat. This will keep the oysters out of reach of predators like oyster drill and sea stars. “They can take 50 percent of the crop,” Menzies said.
Though more costly, Menzies said they hope this new method will have a higher return than open seeding. “This is a one-year cropping cycle,” Menzies said. “From purchasing that seed in July we started selling them in October.”
Making the operation commercially viable is one of the goals of the volunteer-run oyster farm, and it works hand in hand with the goal of improving water quality in Drayton Harbor. Menzies said the volunteers continue to collect samples from the harbor during rainy periods to see if the threshold to trigger a rain closure is at the appropriate level. “Over the last two rainy seasons except for the major rainfalls, gully-washers over one or even two inches in 24 hours, the bacteria level has been acceptable,” he said. The group is working to formalize their program with state shellfish authorities. “Our hope is by next fall to adjust the closure threshold,” Menzies said. “It’s my suspicion we’ll find it’s not a half-inch of rain that really degrades the harbor. It’s more like one inch.” With more rain required to trigger a closure the oyster business in the harbor would be more viable.
At Vis Seafoods owner Cassandra Wright said anything to make harvest more consistent would only help market an exceptional product. “They’re really clean, no sediment,” she said. “They’re a pretty firm, petite oyster.” She added she as a business owner and county oyster-lover liked to support a venture that helps clean up local waters.
Despite challenges the oyster farm is making money. “The profit we have – heavily subsidized that it is – will go back to the harbor,” Menzies said. By next June he anticipates they will have sold $50,000 worth of oysters.
After paying for fuel, moorage, gloves, boots, oyster seed and other costs associated with running an oyster farm, and made possible through hundreds of hours of donated labor, Menzies expects to have $10,000 left over. “That $10,000 will go to support a microbial tracking study in the California Creek drainage,” he said. The study will try to genetically determine the source of bacteria coming down the creek. “The only thing we want to know is are we looking at human, horse or cow,” Menzies said. The knowledge will help the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District Advisory and Whatcom County Marine Resources target funding to on-site septics, hobby farms or dairy farms in the watersheds that feed the harbor. “It will help develop programs that will address those sources,” Menzies said.