Pollution could restrict shellfish harvesting in Portage Bay

Crush, a sewage-sniffing dog, will come to Whatcom County on April 28-29, 2016, to help find possible sources of human waste as part of an effort to clean up fecal bacteria pollution in waterways here.
Crush, a sewage-sniffing dog, will come to Whatcom County on April 28-29, 2016, to help find possible sources of human waste as part of an effort to clean up fecal bacteria pollution in waterways here. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The state could restrict commercial shellfish harvesting on up to 300 additional acres in Portage Bay because of pollution caused by fecal coliform bacteria.

That decision will be made in the coming months.

The bay was among more than 100 commercial shellfish harvesting areas looked at by the Washington State Department of Health during its annual evaluation of water quality.

The state could downgrade those acres from the current “approved” to “conditionally approved.” Or the state could close them altogether.

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

Fecal coliform bacteria come from human and animal feces. The bacteria enter Whatcom County’s waterways in several ways – 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.

The newest limits would follow one put into place in March 2015.

That was when state health officials downgraded nearly 500 of the 1,300 commercial shellfish harvesting acres in the bay from approved to conditionally approved, so harvesting was banned April through June and again in October through December. Those were the months when tests showed the bay was affected by polluted runoff from the Nooksack River carrying higher levels of bacteria into the shellfish harvesting area.

That followed the Lummi Nation’s decision in September 2014 to close 335 acres in the bay to shellfish harvesting after levels exceeded federal pollution standards for commercial shellfish harvest.

Those 335 acres were within the 500 acres downgraded by the state last year.

Restrictions stay in place until water quality improves.

Cleanup efforts progressing

The tribe and a number of agencies and organizations have been working to clean up the pollution in that watershed, and the warning that restrictions could be put into place on even more of the bay didn’t indicate those efforts were failing.

“With any pollution-control efforts and evaluations it does take time so see improvements in water quality,” said Scott Berbells, manager of the Shellfish Growing Area for the state Health Department. “Hopefully in the near future, we’ll start seeing those improvements.”

The Health Department has spent more than $15 million through the National Estuary Program in the past five years to reduce pollution and make sure shellfish are safe to eat.

The annual evaluations of water quality are showing a net improvement, Berbells said.

“We think this is going to continue,” he said.

As part of the effort to get and keep fecal bacteria out of area waterways, officials next week are bringing in Crush, a sewage-sniffing dog, to help track down sources of human waste in Whatcom County.

On Thursday, Crush will be sniffing around Lynden and Ferndale. The next day, Crush will be in Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor. Crush has been used for similar efforts in Skagit and King counties.

The dog will sniff around stream segments and ditch lines of high concern, places where routine water sampling indicated potential sewage discharge, county officials said.

Lummi Nation has had to close its shellfish beds in Portage Bay before because of fecal coliform pollution. It did so in 1996 because of high levels of fecal coliform in the Nooksack River and streams that empty into Portage Bay.

It took until 2003 for cleanup efforts to improve water quality so that 625 acres of tribal shellfish beds could reopen, and another three years for an additional 115 acres to reopen.

The Lummis have said the closure affected thousands of families and cost millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea