SAMISH BAY — As the sun began to set Friday, Kurt Goodale and his crew set out on Taylor Shellfish Farms’ Samish Bay boat, the Janet P, to harvest Pacific oysters and Manila clams.
Goodale and his crew said their shifts recently have been “a roll of the dice,” with uncertainty about whether harvesting would be allowed in the bay or would be closed because of pollution problems.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride with the rains and everything,” Taylor Shellfish Farms spokesman Bill Dewey said. “It’s been a challenge because it’s been open, closed, open, closed, open, closed. You’re on hold ... You don’t know if you’re going to be able to get that product out of the bay.”
Samish Bay is closed to shellfish harvest when the Samish River reaches a certain level because fecal coliform pollution in the bay has often accompanied high river flows. Fecal coliform bacteria is an indicator that human or animal feces, which make shellfish unsafe to consume, are in the water.
Skagit County water quality specialist Rick Haley said with the arrival of the wet fall season, it’s no surprise that during the past several months the Samish River has reached the threshold flow that closes shellfish harvest in Samish Bay.
Twice in October and three times in November, the river has reached the threshold. Twice, fecal coliform bacteria was also found in high amounts in the water, prompting the state Department of Health to extend shellfish harvest closures until water samples were clean.
As Thanksgiving draws near, the uncertainty about whether Samish Bay will be open is a concern for growers who need product for holiday sales.
“People like to eat shellfish with their holiday meals, and for Thanksgiving in particular oyster dressing for turkey is a traditional part of the meal, so our shucked oyster sales go up,” Dewey said.
For Taylor Shellfish, which has several farms in Western Washington, some of those oysters are harvested from Samish Bay.
Since 2009, Skagit County and partner agencies have been working through the Clean Samish Initiative toward having a cleaner Samish River and fewer shellfish harvest closures in Samish Bay.
The Clean Samish Initiative has focused on helping property owners make sure septic systems in the Samish watershed are functioning properly and livestock are kept away from streams.
While the consensus is that progress has been made, shellfish harvest closures still occur, due to both river rise and high pollution levels.
“Although things are getting better, we’re still being impacted out there,” Dewey said.
In the past five weeks, Samish Bay has been closed to shellfish harvest five times. The closures totaled 14 days.
While fecal coliform levels were five to 10 times the state limit during some of those closures, it’s a good sign that not all of the river rises corresponded with spikes in bacteria, Haley said.
“Progress here is incremental and it’s sometimes difficult to see it amongst the bumps,” he said in an email. “Every event is different (depending on) season, duration and intensity of rainfall, whether it fell in the flats or just the foothills, whether septic owner A had a party last weekend, whether farmer B had his cows in the wrong field.”
Even with the recent pollution closures, the amount of fecal coliform found in the water following rain is now significantly lower than the amount found before the Clean Samish Initiative made headway in the watershed, according to Skagit County data.
The amount of bacteria detected in the river has decreased from 5.9 trillion bacteria per day during an average rainstorm in 2010 to 1.4 trillion bacteria per day during an average rainstorm this year.