Bountiful harvests require clean water, good habitat and cooperation

We have always been connected to the lands, marshes and waters that surround us. We depend upon the bounty they provide us for our health and our wellbeing.

As our Lummi elders tell us, “When the tide is out, the table is set” in appreciation of the abundant clams, mussels, oysters and other fish that live on our tidelands and provide the harvest that feed our families. We have always relied upon these traditional foods as essential parts of our diet and our cultural practices.

But this “abundance” is in danger. Shellfish beds that were re-opened for harvest in 2006 after a decade of closures due to high bacteria levels have once again been closed. These closures create ripple effects throughout our communities. Watershed contamination from solid waste leads to harvest closures that impact our families at the dinner table and harm our local economy.

The waterways we rely upon are all of our responsibility and we can create a lasting solution through cooperation.

Our collective interest lies in protecting both the quality of our water and our habitats, so that shellfish and other fish populations flourish. Because if they thrive, we thrive.

Unfortunately, we can no longer harvest and eat shellfish from our Portage Bay area because it is polluted from solid waste that enters our waterways. In the 1990s, when water-quality monitoring conducted by numerous agencies showed that bacteria levels in the Nooksack River were too high to support swimming, boating and shellfish harvests, the people of Whatcom County responded. Working with the Washington state Department of Ecology, the community set much lower bacteria level targets than the applicable water quality standards set by the state for the river and its tributaries. We worked together on technical support, financial assistance, water quality monitoring, compliance and enforcement, and good management practices. By 2004, we successfully met these aggressive targets.

When the Portage Bay shellfish beds reopened for harvest in 2006, it was a momentous day. Unfortunately, the bacteria levels in the Nooksack River and its tributaries are again too high and we are seeing the effects on Portage Bay’s water quality. We must work together again to improve the quality of our area habitat and waterways in order to create a healthy community and a good harvest.

We’ve come together before to solve this problem, and we can do it again. The waterways we rely upon are all of our responsibility and we can create a lasting solution through cooperation. We know what works to protect our area waters from unacceptable levels of bacteria, and to keep our swimming and boating waters safe and our shellfish beds open.

We are all a community of harvest and gathering. Tribal members and non-Natives alike rely on the land and water, and we rely on our communities’ harvest for the food that nourishes us.

By focusing on improving management practices that lower solid waste contamination, we can protect the quality of our waters and habitats to ensure bountiful harvests well into the future. This will not be an easy task, nor can any one person or group do it alone. The Lummi Nation government is committed to working with all of our partners, locally and nationally, to find real solutions to maintain the harvest that defines this great community.

Tim Ballew II is chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council.