Blau oyster

Gerardo Rodarte, owner of Blau Oyster Co., which is now closed, talks in August 2019 about the oyster harvesting process at the farm on Samish Island.

Shellfish farms in the state and the agencies that issue them operating permits are scrambling to complete farm-by-farm paperwork following litigation over whether a former permitting system ensured adequate protections for the marine environment.

Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association Executive Director Margaret Pilaro said many farms are facing uncertainty, including about whether they will be able to plant new crops of young oysters and clams this spring.

“This is the crunch time and this is the time that people are the most panicked because it’s farming: You grow your crops, you sell your crops, you grow your crops, you sell your crops and ... it has been interrupted because until they get their permit they can’t plant,” she said.

Local shellfish farms that could be affected include the Samish Bay operations of Blau Oyster Co. and Taylor Shellfish Farms.

The planting of new shellfish crops usually begins in March, when the weather starts to warm.

“We’re talking about little baby animals that don’t typically do well in harsh winter conditions,” Pilaro said.

State Department of Ecology spokesperson Curt Hart said the agency has received 446 applications for shellfish farm permits and has issued public notices for decisions on about 150 of them under Clean Water Act requirements. A public notice was issued this week for one of 16 applications for shellfish growers in Skagit County.

“We’re really trying to work with shellfish growers and process these applications,” Hart said.

Ecology is also preparing to ask the Legislature for funding to boost the number of staff assigned to the job.

“We are looking at getting two emergency hires to help process these applications,” Hart said.

Ecology’s role is to review permit applications according to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act after the Army Corps of Engineers reviews them first.

Previously, the Army Corps issued a nationwide permit for shellfish growing operations that was reviewed under Section 401 by Ecology for farms in the state. Whether that process provided enough oversight to protect the state’s sensitive habitats including eelgrass was called into question in a federal lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled in October 2019 that the Army Corps permit did not meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The ruling was in response to filings from the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat, the Center for Food Safety and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

Now the Army Corps must review individual permits for shellfish farms in the state, and Ecology must review them, too.

“Absent a nationwide permit covering commercial shellfish aquaculture operations, we are forced to consider each shellfish operation individually, and on a case-by-case basis,” an Ecology webpage states. “We realize this is a large burden on businesses, and we are trying to streamline the process as best we can.”

Pilaro said shellfish growers believe the process under the nationwide permit worked well, and the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association that represents many of them is disappointed that its appeal of Lasnik’s decision was denied in early February. In comparison, seeking farm-by-farm permits is burdensome.

“It’s much more time consuming for the agency and for the grower to go through that process,” Pilaro said.

A three-judge appeals panel unanimously agreed with Lasnik’s decision.

The nationwide permit was first issued for shellfish farms in 2007 and renewed on a five-year basis, in 2012 and 2017, before becoming subject to lawsuits.

Within the state, the shellfish industry employs about 3,200 and contributes about $270 million to the state’s economy each year, according to the growers association.

“Shellfish has been (commercially) grown in Washington for over 100 years,” Pilaro said. “These are jobs in rural economies.”

Shellfish grown in the state is a locally celebrated delicacy and a menu item in demand throughout the U.S. and in Asia.

“You can find Washington shellfish in Chicago and D.C. and Miami and Vegas,” Pilaro said. “We are really hopeful that growers can plant their next crop so that a year or two from now we don’t have a severe shortage in product.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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