Winter shellfish harvesting is once again allowed on 810 acres in the southwest part of Drayton Harbor after more than two decades of work to clean up the water.
The Washington State Department of Health’s shellfish program lifted the seasonal ban Thursday, after tests showed that water quality had improved.
The decision affects recreational and commercial harvesters.
Drayton Harbor Oyster Company has a commercial operation there. The harbor also is a harvest area for the Lummi and Nooksack tribes.
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“This is excellent news,” said Erika Douglas, senior planner for marine resources in the Whatcom County Public Works Department.
“When the community comes together to solve a water quality concern, we can have great success,” she added. “The other piece is, even with this upgrade, we need to continue to work together to protect water quality and continue the efforts that are underway.”
Fecal coliform bacteria washing into the harbor had been the cause of poor quality, going back to 1995. That was the year for a closure to part of Drayton Harbor to shellfish harvesting, followed by a prohibition of the whole harbor in 1999.
After work from a coalition of federal, state, local and tribal agencies to clean up the bacterial pollution, part of the harbor was seasonally opened in 2004 to shellfish harvesting.
But until Thursday, the 810 acres in Drayton Harbor remained closed to shellfish harvesting November through January, during the wettest months, because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria washing into the harbor.
“With rain, any pollutants that are on the ground are going to get washed into either the ditches or the creeks or the storm drain system and then ultimately discharged into the marine waters,” Douglas said.
Fecal coliform bacteria come from human and animal feces. The bacteria enter the harbor and other Whatcom County waterways in several ways – horse and cow manure, pet and wildlife waste, and failing septic systems.
People can become sick after coming into contact with polluted water or eating tainted shellfish.
Reducing fecal coliform has required steps that included repairing septic systems, investing in wastewater and stormwater systems, fencing farm animals to keep them away from waterways, and picking up pet waste.
Steve Seymour, who owns the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company with son Mark, also praised all the effort that made the winter reopening possible, saying he was proud of his community.
“Drayton Harbor is a gem of a place. It’s cool that we’ve been able to clean up the bay,” Seymour said. “It deserves that kind of attention.”
The year when shellfish harvesting was banned in all of Drayton Harbor because of fecal contamination was corrected Dec. 2, 2016.