These shellfish beds were closed because of fecal pollution. But there’s ‘big change’

Lummi tribe and dairy farmers agree to work together to improve water quality

Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II and Whatcom County dairy farmer Larry Stap talk about the new agreement between the tribe and some local dairy farmers to work on stopping fecal coliform bacteria from getting into Portage Bay, home to Lummi's commerci
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Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II and Whatcom County dairy farmer Larry Stap talk about the new agreement between the tribe and some local dairy farmers to work on stopping fecal coliform bacteria from getting into Portage Bay, home to Lummi's commerci

For the first time in years, members of the Lummi Nation are able to harvest shellfish from about 800 acres in Portage Bay during the spring, starting this month.

Because of improving water quality, the state Department of Health has lifted the ban on shellfish harvesting there from April 1 through June 30.

That means that shellfish taken from those parts of Portage Bay are now safe to eat nine months out of the year.

Located off Lummi Shore Road, the bay is home to the tribe’s commercial, ceremonial and subsistence shellfish beds, which had been closed for six months out of the year because of fecal coliform pollution in the Nooksack River and streams that empty into the bay.

The restriction remains in place October through December, when polluted runoff washes into the bay after heavy rain and fecal coliform bacteria levels remain at unsafe levels.

Lummi Nation voluntarily closed some of the acres in 2014 and the state followed starting in 2015.

A Lummi official cheered the spring reopening.

“This is a big, positive change for the Lummi people,” said Merle Jefferson, executive director of Lummi Natural Resources Department, in a news release. “Now, when the sunny days and low daytime tides are here, our people will again be able to harvest shellfish from Portage Bay.”

But, he said, more needed to be done.

“We are glad to see that the spring season harvest closure is being lifted, but we remain concerned about continued poor water quality during the fall months,” Jefferson said.

Fecal coliform bacteria come from human and animal feces.

The bacteria enter Whatcom County’s waterways from a number of sources — horse and cow manure, pet and wildlife waste, and failing septic systems — and indicate there could be pathogens absorbed by the shellfish that may sicken people who eat them.

State and county officials also applauded the decision. As did farmers. All, along with the tribe, have been working together, and on a number of different fronts, to improve water quality upstream of Portage Bay.

That involved identifying what might be causing the fecal bacteria pollution and then fixing it to clean up the water.

“It is really good news,” said Scott Berbells, the growing area section manager for the state Department of Health’s Shellfish Program.

“The positive that we’re seeing here is instead of being closed six months out of the year, (it’s) only being closed three months out of the year,” Berbells said to The Bellingham Herald.

Steps taken over the years to improve water quality included repairing septic systems as well as an offer from the city of Lynden to waive a $6,682 fee for qualifying homeowners to disconnect from their septic systems and connect to Lynden’s sewer system.

Other efforts included fencing farm animals to keep them away from waterways, planting trees and shrubs along creek banks, picking up dog poop and following the Manure Spreading Advisory, according to the Natural Resources division of Whatcom County Public Works.

Did one make more of a difference than the others?

“I don’t know if we can say specific steps were more valuable than others, because cumulatively they all need to happen in a consistent way to be able to maintain improvements during spring and achieve necessary fall season improvements,” Andrea Hood, coordinator of the Whatcom Clean Water Program, said to The Bellingham Herald.

Other efforts included the Lummi tribe and some Whatcom County dairy farmers working together after the formation of the Portage Bay Partnership in January 2017.

They reached an agreement to keep dairy cows’ manure out of the bay and to compensate the tribe’s shellfish harvesters for the loss of their ability to harvest because of fecal coliform pollution.

The partnership’s end goal is to reopen all of the Portage Bay shellfish beds to harvesting year-round, and to keep them that way.

“Given this goal, and the many different sources of bacteria that are out there, getting the shellfish beds reopened only two years after the partnership was signed is a huge accomplishment and success story,” Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers, said of the spring reopening.

“Looking forward to keeping the momentum going,” Likkel said to The Bellingham Herald.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.