Blaine to celebrate ‘legacy’ of shellfish harvest in Drayton Harbor

Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. co-owner Mark Seymour, right, shucks an oyster while customer and Blaine resident Marc Makowski eats an oyster on Friday, Dec. 2, at Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. in Blaine.
Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. co-owner Mark Seymour, right, shucks an oyster while customer and Blaine resident Marc Makowski eats an oyster on Friday, Dec. 2, at Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. in Blaine. eabell@bhamherald.com

A community gathering Dec. 16 will celebrate a 21-year cleanup effort that led to 810 acres of recreational and commercial shellfish grounds in Drayton Harbor being reopened to year-round harvesting.

The event will be at the oyster bar in Blaine owned by the Drayton Harbor Oyster Co., which has a commercial operation growing Pacific oysters on 30 acres in Drayton Harbor.

Steve Seymour owns the business with his son, Mark.

“This is really much bigger than this little oyster company,” Steve Seymour said. “It’s really about keeping a legacy in place.”

The Seymours are the latest to be at the helm of the business that existed in some form since it was established in 1906, but looked like it might just fade into history when fecal coliform pollution washed into Drayton Harbor and threatened to end oyster farming there.

The harbor also is a harvest area for the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, and they felt the loss as well. In the early 1990s, the Lummis harvested more than 30,000 pounds of clams annually from Drayton Harbor.

That was before the harbor, which totals 2,550 acres, had to be shut down because of fecal pollution.

In 1995, part of Drayton Harbor was closed to shellfish harvesting, followed in 1999 by a ban on the entire harbor because the water was too polluted to allow people to safely eat the shellfish – Pacific oysters, butter clams and littleneck clams.

After work from a coalition of federal, state, local and tribal agencies – as well as volunteers from the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm – to clean up the bacterial pollution, part of the harbor was seasonally opened in 2004 to shellfish harvesting.

But the goal was always to get back to a year-round opening.

That happened Thursday, when the Washington State Department of Health lifted the ban on winter shellfish harvesting on the 810 acres in Drayton Harbor, after tests showed that water quality had improved.

“It’s fantastic. It’s great news. There were a lot of people who never thought it would happen,” said Geoff Menzies, the former manager of Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm.

Before Thursday, the area was closed to shellfish harvesting November through January, during the wettest months, because of high levels of fecal pollution.

Sources of pollution

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.

Those who worked to restore Drayton Harbor said it would have been easy to walk away after the area was closed, chalking it up to the cost of more people and a developing landscape.

Steve Seymour praised the community, the city of Blaine and Whatcom County government for the restoration of the shellfish beds, but he singled out Menzies for taking on the challenge of getting the closure lifted.

“He was ornery enough to not take no for an answer,” said Seymour, who had been farming oysters in the mid-1980s. “It kept the focus on Drayton Harbor.”

For his part, Menzies said: “We as citizens, we have a right to clean water. It was a place to make a stand.”

Steve Seymour and Menzies were partners in a commercial oyster operation in Drayton Harbor when the partial closure in 1995 put them out of business.

That closure in turn triggered Whatcom County’s formation of the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District to educate residents about the harbor and its restoration.

To Menzies, a critical piece was help from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which provided energy and money to form the nonprofit Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm – a volunteer group working to restore oyster farming in the harbor – in 2001. (The Seymours took over the farm in 2012 and turned it into their business.)

Help from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund brought in 30 new partners and focused the community on reopening shellfish beds within three years.

It succeeded in 2004, when the farm began its commercial harvest of oysters, the first in nearly a decade.

The project was meant to capture the public’s attention, and to make the community care.

“People protect what they love, and what they like,” Menzies said.

Work is ‘never done’

Years of effort went into improving water quality, first finding the different sources of the fecal pollution and then fixing them.

Steps that were taken included repairing septic systems, getting boaters to use pump-out stations at the marina for their waste, investing in wastewater and stormwater systems, fencing farm animals to keep them away from waterways, and picking up pet waste.

It’s not surprising, then, that those involved with improving water quality and restoring shellfish beds in Drayton Harbor stress that it’s taken widespread effort to get to this point.

“They’ve done some great work in that watershed and made a lot of improvements,” said Scott Berbells, manager of the Shellfish Growing Area Section of the state Department of Health.

“This is a prime example of how successful we can be when communities pull together to protect and improve sensitive important resources,” Berbells added.

And with more people being able to eat Drayton Harbor oysters, whether it’s at the oyster bar in Blaine or in area restaurants, the hope is they’ll continue to care about keeping the water clean for shellfish.

“We reach them through their stomachs,” Menzies said.

That caring is important, because vigilance will be needed to continue to improve water quality in Drayton Harbor, and elsewhere in Whatcom County.

Shellfish harvesting has been banned on about 800 acres of Portage Bay for half the year – April through June and again in October through December. Those are the months when tests showed the bay was affected by polluted runoff from the Nooksack River carrying higher levels of fecal coliform bacteria into the shellfish harvesting area.

Portage Bay is home to Lummi Nation’s ceremonial, subsistence and commercial shellfish beds.

“The work is really never done,” Seymour said.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

If you go

What: Celebration of cleanup efforts that resulted in 810 acres of recreational and commercial shellfish grounds in Drayton Harbor being open year-round. Opening remarks will be followed by oysters and a social hour.

When: 4 p.m. Dec. 16

Where: Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. oyster bar and store, 677 Peace Portal Drive in Blaine

Details: 360-778-6302 and whatcomcounty.us/1072/Water-Quality

Check before you dig

While water quality has improved when it comes to fecal coliform pollution in Drayton Harbor, natural biotoxin levels can change daily.

So recreational harvesters should check a few places before they go:

▪ www.doh.wa.gov/shellfishsafety.html for current beach health and status.

▪ Tom Kunesh from the Whatcom County Health Department at 360-778-6034 or tkunesh@whatcomcounty.us for questions about local shellfish harvest.

▪ www.wdfw.wa.gov for licensing and harvest season requirements.