Shellfish farms in Samish Bay should face fewer closures after the state Department of Health changed how it measures flow thresholds in the Samish River.
Scott Berbells, the agency’s shellfish growing area section manager, said the change was made due to progress in reducing bacterial pollution in the watershed.
The Samish River, tributary streams and Samish Bay have seen intermittent fecal coliform bacteria pollution for many years, at times enough to shut down the shellfish operations.
The bacteria – associated with human and animal waste and often accompanied by bacteria that can cause illness if contaminated shellfish are eaten raw – is largely from failing septic systems and livestock in the watershed.
Local homeowners and landowners who take care of their septic systems and properly manage manure are a big reason why water quality is improving.
Michael See, program manager for Skagit County Clean Water
High levels of the bacteria in the water sometimes correlates with heavy rain, which can wash it from yards and pastures into nearby streams.
Because the bacteria has been a frequent issue and contaminated shellfish are unsafe to eat, harvesting in Samish Bay has been closed as a precaution when the river’s flow increases a certain amount.
The bay has been closed to harvesting for 16 days in 2017 during which growers, including Taylor Shellfish Farms and Blau Oyster Co., were unable to harvest even though pollution did not reach the state’s limit of 4.7 trillion bacteria entering the bay per day.
Taylor Shellfish Farms spokesman Bill Dewey said the company is excited about the change since it will mean fewer closures based on river flow alone.
“It interrupts our work when we get those calls saying shut down your harvest while we get water samples to check for pollution (following an increase in river flow). So this is going to impact us significantly,” he said.
Precautionary Samish Bay harvest closures are based on whether the flow of the Samish River increases a certain amount within 24 hours.
The recent change has doubled the threshold for flows in the months of December, January, February and April.
“This is good news. It shows that the fecal coliform concentrations are lower, so it takes more of a river rise to get us to the closure point,” Skagit County Water Quality Analyst Rick Haley said. “That is a testament to the people in the Samish basin that have stepped up to do what they need to do to reduce pollution sources.”
Since 2009, Skagit County and a variety of partners in the Clean Samish Initiative have worked to reduce the pollution by finding and fixing failing septic systems and addressing areas where manure was getting into the water.
“In recent years, we’ve seen far fewer pollution closures in the Samish basin – and those that do happen last for fewer days,” Skagit County Clean Water Program Manager Michael See said in a news release. “Local homeowners and landowners who take care of their septic systems and properly manage manure are a big reason why water quality is improving.”
Skagit County will continue to monitor water quality in the Samish River regularly and the harvesting of shellfish will be closed any time pollution exceeds the state’s limits. Monitoring on Friday showed that the amount of fecal coliform bacteria entering the bay exceeded the state’s limit, Haley said. Samish Bay was closed to shellfish harvest and has not yet reopened.