PORTAGE BAY, Wash. — The Department of Health recently announced the shellfish beds in Portage Bay are meeting standards to allow reopening during peak shellfish harvesting season.
It’s been nearly 4.5 years since harvesting from shellfish beds in Portage Bay were closed again due to fecal coliform contamination. In September of 2014, Lummi Nation had to close 335 acres to shellfish harvesting due to the worsening water quality.
According to the Washington State Department of Health, Portage Bay conditionally closes a total of 796 acres of the shellfish beds between April and June and between October and December since bacteria levels brought the water quality down in 2015 and 2016. A conditional closure means the shellfish beds meet approved water quality levels only during predictable times of the year – for example, when it is expected to be drier.
“We believe it will be possible in the future to have year-round openings,” said Portage Bay Shellfish Advisory Committee member Fred Likkel in a press release.
Portage Bay has 1,300 commercial shellfish harvesting acres and is west of Bellingham and south of the Lummi Reservation.
Portage Bay has had to be conditionally closed before. In 1997 60 acres were closed and in 1999 an additional 90 acres were closed. The Lummi Nation estimated an economic loss of about $850,000 per year.
The Portage Bay Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee was created during those initial closures. When it was first created, committee members focused on reducing fecal coliform bacteria from agriculture, on-site septic systems, sewage treatment plants and storm-water runoff sources.
In the late 90s, Whatcom dairy farms were linked to the contamination and the most recent contamination it was assumed they also had something to do with it.
While an EPA DNA source study showed no sign of cattle markers in water entering Bellingham Bay, farmers have worked hard to secure funding for additional DNA testing to find out more precisely the animal sources contributing to water quality concerns, according to a press release from Save Family Farming. That testing is now being conducted, according to the press release.
Larry Stap with Twin Brooks Creamery in Lynden, said many dairies in Whatcom County were potentially going to be sued by an attorney out of Oregon for the 2015 contamination.
Instead, several dairy farmers formed the Portage Bay Partnership with Lummi Nation leaders to come up with a solution to better the water quality.
“We can’t just assume it’s the dairy community,” Stap said. “In the late 90s we did have issues, but we cleaned up our acts, worked with others. It’s a combination of everyone working together to get the water quality better.”
The partnership outlined several steps farmers would take to make sure they weren’t contributing to the water quality decrease, and Stap said they haven’t made it through the list quite yet.
“When farmers formed the Portage Bay Partnership with the Lummi leaders, they made it clear they were committed to continued hard work on addressing potential contamination from farms, but also from all sources of contamination,” said Whatcom Family Farmers board president Brad Rader in a press release. “This shows that commitment is paying off.”
Stap said the partnership has even been working internationally by monitoring the water quality in water coming from Canada.
Stap believes the partnership made, not only farmers, but community members more aware of what they do that may affect water quality.
He said the example the farmers in the partnership have set created a new standard in the area. Cities and other farmers are taking notice and making conscious changes.
Stap said the partnership specifically heightened his awareness during the rainy season, and what might happen if one of his manure lagoons is too full during that time.
An unexpected outcome of the partnership are the friendships that have formed between the farmers and Lummi leaders, Stap said.
The partnership showed him that they both have much more in common than he would have thought; mostly finding common ground on tradition and wanting to keep the natural resources thriving in the area.
“If you can learn from the past, and look forward to the future, great things can be done,” Stap said.
KOMO News reached out to the Lummi Tribe for comment but did not hear back by time of publishing.