SAMISH BAY — Eating raw oysters comes with a risk, but that didn't stop Gov. Jay Inslee from enjoying one Monday fresh from the mudflats of Samish Bay at Taylor Shellfish Farm.

Inslee, farm spokesman Bill Dewey and Skagit County officials gathered at the farm to discuss ongoing efforts to reduce fecal coliform bacteria in the Samish River and Samish Bay.

When eaten raw, oysters contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria — which is associated with human and animal feces — can cause illness.

Because the bacteria has been a pollution problem in the Samish watershed for several years, Taylor's and other shellfish farms in Samish Bay are unable to harvest when the river reaches certain flows.

The pollution often coincides with rain and river rise.

The state, county and other organizations have been working through the Clean Samish Initiative since 2009 to reduce pollution in the watershed. The goal is to get the water clean enough that harvests will no longer hinge on river flow.

Each year, the state Department of Health evaluates Samish Bay for a potential upgrade, which would allow harvesting to continue even if the river reaches high flows.

If the river rises at least six times and the bacteria does not exceed state standards more than once during the March through June evaluation period, the bay may be upgraded.

The bay is still in the running for a potential upgrade this year.

High concentrations of bacteria were found in the water March 28 following heavy rain. The Samish River has reached high flows six other times in March, April and May, but bacteria has remained below state standards.

Skagit County Water Quality Analyst Rick Haley said that's a sign of progress, and the county is also seeing about 80 percent less bacteria in the river following rain than at the start of the Clean Samish Initiative.

Previously, the furthest the bay got in the evaluation period was April 7.

This spring marks the first time the river has risen seven times without failing the evaluation, Haley said. 

Board of Skagit County Commissioners Chair Ron Wesen said the progress can be credited to landowners who have changed the way they manage livestock and who have kept septic system inspections up to date.

"If we are able to keep going where we're going until the end of June we will hit our mark, and it's all because of the collaboration with landowners," he said.

Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said it's important to clean up the river not only for the shellfish farms downstream, but to ensure the health of the environment throughout the watershed.

The shellfish farms also have significant economic value.

Dewey said the shellfish farms in Samish Bay, including Taylor Shellfish, have 65 full-time employees, draw tourists to the area and sell about $7.7 million in shellfish products each year — $1.7 million in retail.

"This is an iconic industry in Washington ... there really is no other industry in Washington so sensitive to environmental needs," Inslee said.

*Story updated at 9:15 a.m. to correct economic impact of Samish Bay shellfish industry.

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

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