Bringing the shellfish back: How Drayton Harbor overcame a legacy of pollution
After a long struggle with pollution, Drayton Harbor has reopened to year-round commercial oyster harvesting for the first time in 22 years. Here’s how the community cleaned up its act, potentially showing the way for shellfish recovery throughout Puget Sound.
The oyster beds on Jersey's coast
Have justly won a name
But we grow better flavored ones
Yes, sir, right here in Blaine.
— Blaine Journal Homeseeker’s Edition, 1909
In the narrow, brick-walled oyster bar near Drayton Harbor, a diverse group of people slurp oysters freshly harvested from a beach less than a mile away. They toast the community’s success in restoring the year-round harvest of oysters on the beach near Blaine, just south of the Canadian border.
“It’s pretty crazy how people have rallied around having an oyster farm in their own backyard,” says Steve Seymour, who, with his son Mark, owns the oyster bar and the restored oyster farm on Drayton Harbor.
Saving shellfish from pollution is often seen as a technical challenge of locating and fixing sources of bacterial contamination. But in places like Drayton Harbor, where intractable pollution once spewed freely, a spirit of community cooperation became the driving force to meet the challenge.
The story of Drayton Harbor’s recovery is being played out on beaches throughout Puget Sound, as the region strives to restore more than 10,000 net acres of shellfish beds to year-round harvest — an accomplishment rarely seen anywhere in the world.
Several years ago, the state of Washington established a recovery target of 10,800 acres of renewed shellfish beds in Puget Sound by 2020. That formidable goal has resulted in a massive effort to clean up bacterial pollution, and Drayton Harbor is just one of the success stories. Now, more work is needed as the 2020 deadline nears.
To push onward toward the 2020 goal, a team of experts led by the state Department of Health is developing a Shellfish Beds Implementation Strategy, described as a type of “road map” for meeting the defined target. [Learn more below]
Large-scale shellfish bed closures in Drayton Harbor had been occurring due to pollution as early as 1988, but conditions were quickly worsening. By 1995, just three years after Steve Seymour formed Dayton Harbor Oyster Co. with his partner Geoff Menzies, the Washington State Department of Health declared most of the harbor “prohibited” from shellfish harvesting. That action effectively ended their fledgling oyster business, and the remainder of the harbor was shut down to all harvesting in 1999.
“I thought it was the end,” Seymour said, “and I went on to other things.”
The prospects for recovery were bleak. A 1998 pollution survey revealed a 21-percent failure rate among the septic systems near the shore. Breaks in aging sewer lines also were identified as a problem, as was the nearby marina where some boaters apparently were dumping human waste.
Besides septic systems, sewer lines and boats near the harbor, pollution was coming in from Dakota and California creeks. These streams were contaminated from failing septic systems and poor livestock practices throughout the 36,000-acre watershed. As more and more sources of pollution were identified, a solution seemed almost out of reach.
Community oyster farm
Betsy Peabody, who founded Puget Sound Restoration Fund in 1997, said her group had been searching for projects. A meeting was set up with officials at Trillium Corporation, owners of the 200-room Semiahmoo Resort, which overlooks Drayton Harbor. Trillium’s hope was to serve locally grown oysters in the resort’s restaurant.
Although some people had doubts, Peabody teamed up with Menzies, who was disheartened at the prospect of losing Drayton Harbor’s exceptional oysters. Their vision was to rally the community around clean water and what that can bring.
“In 2001, it wasn’t clear that there was any one thing we could do to make a difference,” Peabody said. “The way we approached it was to say there would be no finger-pointing. We would ask, ‘What can each of us bring to the table to turn this around?’”
Although Peabody and Menzies had a positive outlook and were engaged in the labyrinthine effort to track down pollution sources, they soon learned that it was not enough. That’s when Ken Hertz, a Trillium executive and former Bellingham mayor, spelled out the situation for them.
“When you want to make something happen, you have to invest in it,” was Hertz’ advice, Peabody recalled. “You don’t talk about it or plan for things down the road. If you want oysters to be harvestable in Drayton Harbor, you’d better start growing oysters.”
That optimistic vision was the impetus for the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm, which started in 2001. With special permission from the state and help from volunteers, the nonprofit group planted baby oysters in an area where harvesting was prohibited.
“That started the clock ticking,” Peabody said. “In three years, those oysters would be ready to harvest.”
Led by Menzies, volunteers not only planted oysters but also tended to the growing area, collected water samples and helped spread the word. State and county agencies became partners in the effort while continuing to identify pollution sources.
Tracking the pollution
The standard method of tracking pollution in Puget Sound has become known as Pollution Identification and Correction, or PIC. In theory, it involves locating “hot spots” where a stream, ditch or seep has a large concentration of fecal bacteria.
Investigators work their way upstream looking for potential sources, such as a failing septic system, cows in a stream, excessive manure on a field, or even an unusual collection of dog droppings. If a high level of bacteria is found on the downstream side of a suspected source and a low level is found on the upstream side, then the problem lies somewhere between.
“In Drayton Harbor, there was a whole suite of nonpoint sources,” said Lawrence Sullivan of the state’s Shellfish Program at the Washington State Department of Health. “They had agriculture, leaky sewer lines from the city of Blaine, stormwater, failing septic systems, marina problems, wildlife. You name it, they had it.”
In most areas of Puget Sound with bacterial pollution, septic system failures are a big part of the problem, and they are not always easy to spot. When inspectors suspect a failing system, they can perform various tests, including the use of a fluorescent dye to help trace effluent from toilet to drainfield and beyond. State law requires all property owners to get their septic systems inspected — every three years for standard gravity systems and every year for other systems.
Out of nearly 400 septic systems tested in Drayton Harbor, 128 were found to be failing or were suspected of problems. Most systems were repaired, while some were hooked up to city sewers. Since then, nearly all 3,000 septic systems in the watershed have been inspected under the state’s mandatory program.
Meanwhile, over the years, many other changes have been taking place to reduce human waste — from the replacement of sewer pipes to the relocation of boat pump-out facilities. Eventually a new advanced sewage-treatment plant was built to release only highly treated effluent into Drayton Harbor. And, to cover all bases, new pet-waste stations have been installed in parks and along public trails.
Nearly half of all the land in the Drayton Harbor watershed is managed for farming. Seven dairies and dozens of other farms of all sizes are located upstream of the harbor. That’s consistent with Whatcom County as a whole, which contains about a third of all the livestock in the Puget Sound region.
Tracking pollution from septic systems turned out to be far easier than figuring out how manure from nearby farms had gotten into the water.
“Septic systems don’t move around,” noted Andrea Hood, a state health inspector assigned to Whatcom’s Clean Water Program. “It’s somewhat black and white. They’re either working or they’re not.”
Livestock, on the other hand, can be moved from place to place, she said. Manure may be applied to one field or another. It may be applied inconsistently or, inadvisably, just before a rainstorm.
One common obstacle is simply getting a landowner’s permission to walk onto his farm in a search for pollution sources. “People have been farming this area for a long time,” Hood said, “and some are wondering, ‘Why should I change?’”
Whatcom Conservation District played a major role in helping farmers voluntarily improve their manure-handling practices.
Among the regulatory actions imposed through the years, the county outlawed the application of liquid manure on bare ground from September to March; the state implemented a dairy inspection program statewide; and the Environmental Protection Agency sent out warning notices to dairy farms with water-quality violations.
Despite some tension in the community, many of the resistant farmers were won over by the spirit of their neighbors, expressed in a series of town hall meetings. The discussion gradually became less about who was causing the greatest problems and more about how each person could help.
“As a general principle, we all want clean water for a variety of purposes,” said George Boggs, executive director of Whatcom Conservation District. “Cattle need water to drink. People need water to play in. From that standpoint, farmers can understand that shellfish growers are farmers too.”
Over the years, residents around Drayton Harbor continued to head down to the beach to tend to the oysters, although the shellfish could not be harvested. At the same time, efforts to stem the flow of pollution were beginning to pay off.
“A community effort brings an important dimension to a restoration project,” said Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund. “It gives people a chance to experience the place and the resource that you are trying to upgrade.”
In June of 2004, state health officials reclassified 575 acres of shellfish beds from “prohibited” to “conditionally approved.” It was the culmination of many years of hard work, and the reclassification allowed harvesting to resume — except for a waiting period after every heavy rainfall.
Menzies, who not only managed the community farm but also continued to work on pollution studies under a contract with Puget Sound Restoration Fund, recalled how the hard-working volunteers made a difference.
“Volunteers were picking oysters and loading them onto a barge, 40 pounds to a bushel,” Menzies said. “We continued through 2008 and shipped 50 tons of oysters to China.”
As of 2010, volunteers had logged 38,000 hours of their time working on Drayton Harbor oyster recovery. That’s equivalent to two people working full-time, 40 hours a week, for 9 years.
As cleanup efforts continued in the watershed, the community oyster farm prepared to turn over the operation to a private business — a goal established at the beginning, Menzies said. In 2013, Steve Seymour, then retired, agreed to come back and assume the tidelands lease.
Seymour started his new company with son Mark, restoring the name Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. In 2015, they opened the oyster bar in Blaine, offering fresh oysters directly from the harbor.
This past November, after 25 years of tracking down and cleaning up pollution, the long-awaited news finally came that 810 acres of shellfish beds had been reclassified as “approved.” Much of Drayton Harbor could be considered recovered. Year-round harvests resumed for the first time in 22 years, and the community held a major celebration in December.
“People have been gathering food along these shorelines for thousands of years,” Peabody said. “Gathering shellfish today helps us remember how important clean water is to our well-being.”
In addition to state and local funding, Whatcom County has received about $1.3 million from the federal Environmental Protection Agency since 2012 for PIC programs throughout the county, including Drayton Harbor. Another $77,000 in EPA funding has gone to the county for monitoring, septic system maintenance and other projects.
“My biggest concern now,” Seymour said, “is whether we can maintain the water quality in the bay. The goal has been reached; we’ve celebrated; now what?”
Drayton Harbor oysters have become part of the community conscience, Seymour said. People are making connections between their own actions, water quality and the finest oysters anywhere.
“I see dairy farmers and raspberry growers coming in here to slurp oysters,” he said, adding that some of these folks were the ones who fought against making changes some years ago.
A clean Drayton Harbor is capable of producing up to $2 million in oysters each year on 100 acres of ground, said Menzies. But the real values are the social benefits of sharing locally grown oysters, the recreational opportunities from clean water, and the cultural traditions, both tribal and nontribal.
“Maybe I like a good battle, and that has kept me going all these years,” Menzies said. “I don’t want to lose this. If there are problems in the future, I think you will see people flooding the county council chambers in protest — and they are not going to be property-rights people; they are going to be oyster lovers.”
Closing in on the magic number in Samish Bay
By Christopher Dunagan
The story of Drayton Harbor is just one of many in the larger effort to restore shellfish growing operations in Puget Sound. So far, 10,372 acres of shellfish beds throughout the region have been upgraded in classification since 2007.
With a target of 10,800 acres, the state would be well on its way to achieving its goal except for a series of downgrades of 5,569 acres during that same time-period. Since the goal, set by the Puget Sound Partnership, requires a net increase in the harvestable area, the actual gain so far is only 4,803 acres.
Officials believe Samish Bay, south of Bellingham, holds the key to whether Puget Sound can meet its goal by the year 2020.
That’s because some 4,000 acres of shellfish beds in Samish Bay alone were downgraded in 2011 from “approved” to “conditionally approved,” reflecting increased pollution during rainy periods. That 4,000 acres counts against the 10,800-acre goal established by the Puget Sound Partnership.
Rather than finding another 4,000 acres to restore, some 30 government agencies and other groups are on a mission to return Samish Bay to an “approved” status within the next three years. The effort, known as the Clean Samish Initiative, actually began in 2009 — two years before the 4,000-acre downgrade.
“I would say there have been a lot of successes across the board,” said Lawrence Sullivan of the Washington State Department of Health. “We’re seeing a big reduction in fecal coliform (bacteria) during storm events.”
The Samish Bay watershed drains 123 square miles, including portions of Skagit and Whatcom counties. This region contains extensive farmland, including dairy and livestock operations, as well as growing pockets of development.
As in other areas, some of the quickest improvements were seen where farmers improved their manure-handling practices and homeowners replaced their failing septic systems. But today progress has slowed as remaining pollution sources become harder to find. Skagit County’s pollution identification and correction (PIC) program continues to methodically track pollution back to the sources.
Norovirus in 1994
Samish Bay has been producing shellfish for decades. Longtime residents often tell the story of pollution by beginning in 1994, when a sizeable number of rugby players attending a tournament came down sick with an intestinal illness. The problem was identified as a norovirus traced to the Samish Bay shellfish the players had eaten. The human source of the virus was never found.
That same year, 2,200 acres of shellfish beds were downgraded from “approved” to “prohibited,” meaning that shellfish harvesting was not allowed at any time. Another 485 acres went from “approved” to “restricted,” meaning that the shellfish could not be sold until after they were “relayed” to an approved area to flush out the pollution.
As required by law, a shellfish protection district was established, and area residents began working on the pollution problem. Community meetings were held to rally people to action in the Blanchard and Edison areas, where specific problems with human waste were identified. In Blanchard, a state grant helped nearly 30 people replace their septic systems. In Edison, the solution was a community drainfield.
To celebrate those successes and cleaner water, Blanchard launched a Poop Parade with toilet-paper streamers followed by a big shellfish feed. The annual event lasted several years.
In 1998, 350 acres were upgraded from “prohibited” to “conditionally approved,” then in 2002 that acreage became “approved.”
Water-quality officials had been taking water samples and finding occasional pollution for several years when they made a dramatic discovery by accident during a stormy period.
“We were blissfully unaware how much we needed to focus on storm samples,” said Rick Haley, water quality analyst for Skagit County Public Works. “The upshot was that we had missed the worst of it.”
In most areas of Puget Sound, the worst pollution comes during storm events in the fall. But in Samish Bay, springtime brings the worst pollution — and Haley found bacterial levels 170 times greater than allowable levels.
“Everyone’s hair caught on fire, and that kicked off a large intensive initiative,” Haley said. “We met with dairymen and farmers and started a better focus on storm sampling. We did a lot more sampling in general to characterize the watershed.”
The data led the Washington State Department of Health to prohibit harvesting during heavy rain events, which led to the 2011 downgrade of 4,037 acres of shellfish beds. Now, when the river rises quickly, harvesting is immediately shut down.
The specific flows that trigger a closure are an increase of 300 cubic feet per second within 24 hours during January and February, varying between 100 and 200 cfs at other times of the year. Testing proceeds, and shellfish harvesting can resume if pollution levels in the Samish River are below 4.7 trillion bacteria per day at Thomas Road, just before the river flows into the bay.
Efforts to reduce pollution throughout the watershed have led to major reductions in bacterial pollution, and now local and state water quality experts hope that the critical upgrade of 4,000 acres will soon take place. In fact, the upgrade nearly occurred last year.
Upgrade criteria established by the state Department of Health begins with a requirement that high flows triggering a closure must occur at least six times between March and June — the peak period of pollution. Out of all those closures, no more than one can be a “confirmed” closure, meaning that the pollution level exceeds the standard of 4.7 trillion bacteria per day.
In 2016, only one closure was “confirmed,” which was a good sign. But rainstorms were few, and high flows occurred only five times, whereas six high-flow events were needed.
For comparison, in 2011, 9 out of 10 closures (90 percent) were confirmed. In 2012, it was 11 out of 14 (79 percent); in 2013, 8 out of 13 (62 percent); in 2014, 11 out of 16 (69 percent); and in 2015, 3 out of 4 (75 percent).
Pollution monitoring helps people understand where the problems are located, Haley said, “but any improvements are due to basin residents stepping up and doing the right thing.”
As Samish Bay hangs in the balance, the waterway still produces surprises. In February, when the river flows were not particularly high, the bacterial load at Thomas Road reached 7.5 trillion per day, triggering a closure. Officials are still looking for the source of that sudden burst of pollution.
To push onward toward the 2020 goal, a team of experts led by the state Department of Health is developing a Shellfish Beds Implementation Strategy, described as a type of “road map” for meeting the defined target. The document spells out the various problems, including wastewater treatment plants, septic systems and livestock wastes.
In agricultural areas, the proposed strategy suggests addressing the complex issue of manure management. Ideas include:
- Treating manure as a commodity with economic value to farmers,
- Providing real-time weather information about when to apply manure to fields,
- Developing a coordinated outreach program to small farms,
- Sharing information and building consensus around the best manure-management practices for avoiding water pollution.
Key to the effort is ongoing funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local resources to support pollution identification and correction programs that track down sources of pollution, according to the strategy. Without diligence, problems have a way of returning.
To reduce pollution from septic systems, legislation may be needed to establish sustainable funding to help manage septic system inspections and provide low-interest loans for repairs, the report says.
For the long term, state agencies, in coordination with local tribes, should develop a plan to reduce pollution from sewage-treatment plants, which could shrink the shellfish-closure areas around sewer outfalls according to the document. Sewage effluent not only reduces commercial shellfish harvesting but it can damage other natural resources, such as aquatic vegetation, the report states.
Consistent with principles of adaptive management, Implementation Strategies are designed to be updated as new information becomes available. Concerns related to potential ecological damage from intensive shellfish cultivation were deferred to other Implementation Strategies focused on habitat protection and restoration.
One of the great lessons learned in developing the Implementation Strategy is that community perspectives and participation are essential to success, the report states. The strategy recommends outreach and “social marketing” to emphasize protection of public health; increased recreational opportunities, including shellfish harvesting; and economic benefits.