These Birch Bay shellfish beds have been closed for 10 years. Here’s why they’re reopening

Washington state Department of Health has reopened 129 acres in Birch Bay to shellfish harvesting.
Washington state Department of Health has reopened 129 acres in Birch Bay to shellfish harvesting. The Bellingham Herald file

The state has reopened 129 acres in Birch Bay to shellfish harvesting after years of work to clean up fecal coliform pollution.

Harvesting in the water around the mouth of Terrell Creek had been closed to shellfish harvesting since 2008 because of high counts of the bacteria in the creek, according to the Whatcom County Public Works Department.

Years of cleanup effort led the Washington state Department of Health to allow shellfish harvesting to once again occur year-round. The agency upgraded the shellfish beds on Jan. 16.

“The upgrade is good news. A lot of credit belongs to the groups in the watershed area that did an incredible amount of work finding and fixing pollution sources,” said Scott Berbells, the growing area section manager for the state Health Department.

He also praised upland property owners who made an effort to correct potential problems in the area.

The acres are for commercial, tribal and recreational shellfish harvesting.

There are no active growers there because it was just upgraded, Berbells said, adding that no one has yet asked to harvest.

Fecal coliform bacteria come from human and animal feces. The bacteria enter the bay 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.

Terrell Creek is the largest tributary flowing into Birch Bay. It starts at Lake Terrell and winds about nine miles through rural, industrial, urban areas and farmland on its way to the bay – picking up bacteria from different sources along the way, according to the Public Works Department.

A coalition of community members, nonprofit organizations and local government worked together to reduce the pollution.

Among them is the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, which has been doing monitoring, outreach and restoration projects in the Terrell Creek and Birch Bay watershed for more than a decade.

Steps taken to reduce fecal coliform pollution included repairing septic systems, consistent use of marina pump-out systems, fencing farm animals to keep them out of waterways, managing manure, planting shrubs and trees along the banks of the creek, picking up pet waste, and keeping pet food away from wildlife, Public Works officials said.

Officials are planning a celebration for spring or summer in Birch Bay.

Although it has been reopened to shellfish harvesting because water quality has improved, public health officials are reminding people that the area also is prone to seasonal closures caused by naturally occurring biotoxins. Keep an eye out for such closures by checking doh.wa.gov/shellfishsafety.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea