For over 75 years, Blau Oyster Co. has relied on Washington state's cool clean waters to grow the plump oysters that are as prized in the Northwest as salmon and orcas. But too much pollution from animal and human waste has been washing into Samish Bay in north Puget Sound, prohibiting shellfish harvests 38 days already this year.
"If the water quality isn't good, we can't be open," said Scott Blau, whose family has been farming in these tidelands 80 miles north of Seattle since 1935. Most of the harvest from the small business is shucked and ends up in stews or can be ordered pan-fried or raw at local restaurants; some oysters are sold in the shell as far away as Hong Kong and Singapore.
Washington state is the nation's leading producer of farmed oysters, clams and other bivalves with about $100 million in annual sales. The recent downgrade of 4,000 acres of shellfish beds in Samish Bay because of fecal contamination means more days when shellfish beds can't be harvested, hurting the local economy and jeopardizing the much larger, decades-long effort to clean up pollution in Puget Sound, the nation's second largest estuary. It also was set back in the state's goal to increase 10,800 acres of harvestable shellfish beds by 2020.
Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year said the state has failed in Samish Bay, and directed agencies to fix the problem by next September. "We're not going to flush, literally flush 4,000 acres down the drain of prime shellfish growing area in the state," she told managers at an April meeting.
In response, state and local officials last month released a plan for more inspections and enforcement on all fronts, including septic tanks, livestock operations, small hobby farms, dairies and others, as well as more education and help for landowners. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this summer plans over flights to determine likely pollution sources, such as muddy fields where rain is more likely to wash mud manure into waters.
The problems of Samish Bay highlight the greater challenges facing Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay and other distressed watersheds, where cleanup is complicated by pollution from many varied and diffused sources, called nonpoint pollution, including farmland or stormwater runoff, agricultural activities, urban development, failing septic tanks, toxics and even pet waste.
"If we can't fix it in Samish, we're in trouble," said Bill Dewey, who owns a clam farm in the bay and is a spokesman for Taylor Shellfish, which also has a farm there. "This is as classic as it gets for nonpoint pollution. (The governor) has put a stake in the ground here and said this is going to be an example."
Officials say the fecal contamination comes from many sources, including farm livestock waste, wildlife, pets and humans. The bacteria level is especially high when heavy rains cause additional runoff into the Samish River, which flows into the bay. Shellfish can accumulate bacteria or other harmful pathogens; eating contaminated shellfish can make people sick.
Last year, Samish Bay shellfish areas were closed 14 times for a total of 63 days. This year's six closures, mostly after rain events, have pinched Blau Oyster Co., which has 10 full-time employees.
"It's hard to keep a crew busy. It interferes with the cash flow when we're not producing," 70-year-old Paul Blau said one morning at the family's bayside oyster shucking facility, tucked in a residential neighborhood on a picturesque sliver of land that juts into Puget Sound like a crooked finger. The air smells of saltwater, seaweed and mud. The tides are receding, revealing some of the family's 200 acres of tidelands. Inside the facility, several workers wearing rubber gloves and bibs coax oyster meat from the hard shells of Pacific oysters that were harvested earlier that morning. Along one side of the plant, several barrels of live oysters are packed with ice, waiting to be shipped to British Columbia.
Steven Blau, 42, said dairy farms get a bad rap but there's enough blame to go around. "It's a combination of everything," he said, noting septic tanks and human impact. "It's not just one thing."
There's an effort underway to trace sources of the fecal contamination. But one focus of inspections will be landowners with animals, from commercial livestock operations to small hobby farms with a variety of animals such as pigs, goats or alpacas.
"Animals generate manure. If that's properly managed, everything is fine," said Tom Eaton, the EPA's Washington operations director. "If they're allowed access to streams and creeks or the ground is not grassland but a muddy field, it's a lot more likely that it will get washed into the stream."
Eaton said EPA inspectors will look for animals with direct access to streams or properties that don't have sufficient buffers near streams.
Some think authorities have been too lax. "The greater problem is lack of adequate enforcement and regulation," said Larry Wasserman, environmental policy manager for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. "Voluntary approaches aren't going to solve these problems."
Carolyn Kelly, manager of the Skagit Conservation District, supports a voluntary approach and incentives. "You can't really send the militia in to clean up Puget Sound," she said. The district helps landowners install pump systems to water livestock away from creeks, composting systems, fences and buffer plantings, among other measures.
"The landowners are really coming together to and working really hard to address the situation," she said. Like elsewhere in Puget Sound, more development and population growth are also straining natural resources, she added.
Dan Berenston, natural resources manager for Skagit County Public Works, said the county and a coalition of agencies and groups have been inspecting septic tanks, monitoring water quality, and educating the public, as well as installing pet waste containers and portable toilets for birders, hunters, fisherman and other recreational users. The county got a $960,000 grant from the EPA last year to find and fix sources of fecal contamination.
"I would not call it a failure," he said. "We are making progress. We just aren't making progress as quickly as we like."