Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Meeting the farmers of the tide flats

When Mark and Steve Seymour, co-owners of the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster farm, invited the members of the Tenmile Creek Clean Water Project on a boat tour to view the oyster farm, it didn’t take long to fill the boat.  Why?  Because members of the Tenmile Clean Water Project (a citizen-driven project coordinated by RE Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper Team) are working hard to improve water quality in Tenmile Creek, a tributary of the Nooksack River.  Their goal is to lower fecal coliform bacteria levels in their watershed, and keep them low.

The Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm represents a long standing effort to restore clean water and shellfish harvesting in Drayton Harbor, by reducing fecal coliform levels.  In 2001, volunteers seeded oyster larvae in Drayton Harbor’s waters that were prohibited to all shellfish harvest due to chronic bacterial contamination.   These volunteers were fully aware that before any oysters could be harvested, measurable improvements in water quality would need to be achieved.   In June 2004, as a direct result of Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s intensive efforts to reduce pollution, 575 acres were conditionally re-opened to shellfish harvest and the community feasted on Drayton Harbor oysters for the first time in ten years.

Levels of fecal coliform bacteria in Tenmile Creek, and almost all the Nooksack River tributaries have been slowly worsening, and two marine sampling stations adjacent to Portage Bay are currently failing state standards.  Official closure of the Lummi Nation’s shellfish beds is imminent, and the consequences are dire.   We’ll post more about this in the future.

Back to the tour.  These tiny flecks shown above are oyster larvae  Our farmers of the tide flats purchase these babes, and incubate them on a floating barge for their first months.  While in the nursery, they’re closely monitored and protected from predation.  Here’s the floating nursery: 

After a couple of months in the incubators, the larvae have grown into recognizable baby oysters, and they’re ready for life in the tideflats.  

As we motored out towards the tideflats, we learned a lot about past water quality efforts.  One of the people aboard had been involved many of these efforts, which included upgrading Blaine’s sewer system, monitoring industrial discharges to the harbor, requiring septic system inspections in the watersheds that drain to Drayton Harbor, working with farmers to adopt farm plans that included installing buffers and other methods to prevent manure from reaching streams, establishing a network of water quality monitoring stations, and establishing an effective landowner education and outreach efforts.  These efforts worked.

Many of us working in the Tenmile watershed are worried about the imminent shutdown of the Lummi Nation’s shellfish beds, so it was especially interesting to hear how a successful outcome was achieved in the Drayton Harbor watershed.  And just as we approached maximum enjoyment of the water and boat ride, we reached the oyster growing area and waded to it.  We learned that young oysters are placed into these net bags for up to one year.  The bags are anchored with ropes, and as the tide ebbs and floods, the oysters thrive.  Inside the bags, the oysters are safe from predators, and they’re easy to monitor. 

Once the oysters reach the desired size, the bags are moved to a floating barge in deeper water.  Here, they’re lowered into the water column, where they continue to feed.  As they filter the cooler, deeper water, they develop the clean ocean taste that makes oysters so tasty.  

The folks on the tour were really curious, and full of questions.  Our tour guides were most gracious.  We departed feeling even more inspired to work for clean water.  Could what worked in Drayton Harbor work in Tenmile? Could we help turn around water quality so that oysters from the Lummi shellfish bed could safely be harvested?

Want to learn more?  Want to help us?  There’s a lot going on this week for Whatcom Water Weeks.  Check it out for all kinds of local tours and opportunities that will help educate you about water quality.  Find out more about the Drayton Harbor Oyster Farm

Interested in joining the Tenmile Creek Clean Water Project?  All are invited.  We meet on the second Wednesday of each month at Bellewood Acres, 6:30pm.  Join us in our work for clean water - it's going to take all of us.  Besides, oysters are delicious!

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