As the sun began to set last Friday, Kurt Goodale and his crew set out on Taylor Shellfish Farms’ Samish Bay boat, the Janet P, to harvest Pacific oysters and Manila clams.
Goodale and his crew said their shifts recently have been “a roll of the dice,” with uncertainty about whether harvesting would be allowed in the bay or would be closed because of pollution problems.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride with the rains and everything,” Taylor Shellfish Farms spokesman Bill Dewey said. “It’s been a challenge because it’s been open, closed, open, closed, open, closed. You’re on hold … You don’t know if you’re going to be able to get that product out of the bay.”
Samish Bay is closed to shellfish harvest when the Samish River reaches a certain level because fecal coliform pollution in the bay has often accompanied high river flows. Fecal coliform bacteria is an indicator that human or animal feces, which make shellfish unsafe to consume, are in the water.
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Skagit County water quality specialist Rick Haley said with the arrival of the wet fall season, it’s no surprise that during the past several months the Samish River has reached the threshold flow that closes shellfish harvest in Samish Bay.
Twice in October and three times in November, the river has reached the threshold. Twice, fecal coliform bacteria was also found in high amounts in the water, prompting the state Department of Health to extend shellfish harvest closures until water samples were clean.
As Thanksgiving draws near, the uncertainty about whether Samish Bay will be open is a concern for growers who need product for holiday sales.
“People like to eat shellfish with their holiday meals, and for Thanksgiving in particular oyster dressing for turkey is a traditional part of the meal, so our shucked oyster sales go up,” Dewey said.
For Taylor Shellfish, which has several farms in Western Washington, some of those oysters are harvested from Samish Bay.
Since 2009, Skagit County and partner agencies have been working through the Clean Samish Initiative toward having a cleaner Samish River and fewer shellfish harvest closures in Samish Bay.
The Clean Samish Initiative has focused on helping property owners make sure septic systems in the Samish watershed are functioning properly and livestock are kept away from streams.
While the consensus is that progress has been made, shellfish harvest closures still occur, due to both river rise and high pollution levels.