New acreage approved for commercial shellfish harvest in Drayton Harbor

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Another 765 acres has been approved for commercial shellfish harvesting in Drayton Harbor, following years of pollution prevention efforts that have improved water quality.

The new acreage, located roughly in the middle of the harbor, was approved by the Washington State Department of Health, which determined that marine water quality and shoreline conditions meet necessary standards. Licensed companies can now submit requests to set up farms and harvest shellfish in the newly approved area.

The health department’s decision became effective on October 22, and it reflects longstanding efforts to find and fix preventable sources of human and animal bacteria pollution. The decision is a success for stakeholders ranging from homeowners, farmers and boat owners to the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District, the Whatcom Clean Water Program and the city of Blaine.

“The long-term commitment to water quality improvement by local and state agencies, tribes and community members has been paramount to the success seen in this area,” said Scott Berbells, the health department’s shellfish growing area section manager. “Data shows that pollution prevention actions are working, and the community can be proud of their accomplishments.”

The state health department is responsible for the classification of all commercial shellfish harvesting areas in the state. In order to assess risks to shellfish harvesters, the health department measures water quality and tracks shoreline pollution sources. It specifically looks for fecal coliform bacteria in marine water.

In Drayton Harbor, the health department conducts ongoing water quality monitoring. Samples are taken once a month from various water sampling stations. “We look at statistics from a minimum of 30 samples, and those statistics have to be a very stringent standard,” said Berbells. “There can be no shoreline pollution sources in the area, like failed on-site septic systems, agricultural practices, farms, wastewater treatment plants or marinas.”

After evaluating an area, the health department issues one of five classifications: approved, conditionally approved, conditionally restricted, restricted or prohibited. On one end of the spectrum, the “approved” classification means that water quality is good, no pollution sources have been found and commercial harvesters can operate and take their product directly to market.

On the other end of the spectrum, the “prohibited” classification means that no harvesting is allowed at all. The other classifications allow for some harvesting, but it is subject to temporary closures – due to rainfall, for example – or certain procedures, such as later relaying product to an approved area so that it can “purge” itself of bacteria.

The newly approved 765 acres in Drayton Harbor are in addition to 810 acres of shellfish growing area that were approved for commercial harvest in November 2016, when the 810-acre area went from “conditionally approved” to “approved.”

The 2016 upgrade followed more than two decades of work to reduce preventable fecal bacteria pollution from freshwater creeks and other human-influenced sources surrounding the harbor. This work included the formation of the shellfish protection district and a community oyster farm in the mid-1990s. Efforts also included the formation of the Whatcom Clean Water Program, a partnership of local, state, tribal and federal agencies intended to strengthen and coordinate activities to reduce pollution.

The city of Blaine also invested in improved wastewater and stormwater management infrastructure. Residents and boat owners also played an important role, helping to prevent pollution from human waste by regularly evaluating and repairing septic systems and consistently using marina pump out stations.

Farm owners also took steps to prevent animal waste from entering Drayton Harbor. To reduce bacteria pollution from animal waste, landowners have fenced farm animals out of waterways; created protected heavy use and manure storage areas to better manage pastures, manure and mud; planted shrubs and trees along creek banks; and picked up pet waste.

Going forward, the classification of the new area will be subject to an annual evaluation. Additional acres could also be opened up; this will require setting up additional marine water sampling stations. Some areas of Drayton Harbor will continue to remain prohibited, however, such as the areas near the Blaine and Semiahmoo marinas.

The reclassification does not change the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recreational harvest regulations in the harbor. Recreational harvest is open only in the Drayton West area. Naturally occurring biotoxins can accumulate to levels that make recreational harvest unsafe during certain times of the year, so recreational harvesters should always determine if it’s safe and legal to harvest by visiting doh.wa.gov/shellfishsafety. Licensing and harvest season requirements are available at wdfw.wa.gov.

To celebrate the improving water quality, the Drayton Harbor Shellfish District Advisory Committee and its local partners are hosting an event on Friday, December 13 from 4 to 6 p.m. The fourth annual Shellebration will take place at the H Street Plaza and will include refreshments, oyster samples courtesy of the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company and a presentation of community awards.

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