Efforts to clean up the waters near Hoodsport in southern Hood Canal are paying off with increased shellfish-harvesting opportunities for the Skokomish Tribe, private property owners and recreational harvesters.
The final step in the cleanup effort involved tracking down sources of pollution, including eight failing septic systems, which then were either repaired or replaced. After four years of improving water quality, the Washington Department of Health has upgraded 66 acres of tidelands from “prohibited” to “approved,” certifying that the clams and oysters near Hoodsport are now safe to eat. That’s nearly a mile of beaches previously closed to harvesting for the past 45 years.
Hood Canal has long been recognized as a special place to grow shellfish, and most of its 200 miles of shoreline is certified as safe for commercial or recreational harvests — although most tidelands are in private ownership. Cleaning up the Hoodsport beaches is another step in protecting the waterway from human pollution.
The newly certified area includes two publicly owned beaches that could be opened to recreational harvesting next spring if things go well, according to Camille Speck, intertidal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. One area is in front of the Hoodsport fish hatchery, and the other is around the Port of Hoodsport dock. Both areas must be surveyed for shellfish quantities, and the port still needs to give its approval, Speck said.
“The beauty of both of these locations is their easy access,” she said. “This is a real big win for the recreational fishery.”
Speck praised the organizations involved in the cleanup effort, including the Skokomish Tribe, which pushed for the project and assisted in water-quality sampling; Mason County Public Health, which tracked down the sources of pollution; and the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which provided support from its federally funded Hood Canal Regional Pollution Identification and Correction Program.
In addition to recreational activities, the newly certified beaches allow for commercial and tribal harvesting near Hoodsport. In April, the tribe launched its first oyster harvest in that area following a survey to estimate quantities of shellfish, followed by notification to property owners. As interpreted by federal courts, tribes are entitled to half the naturally produced shellfish found in their traditional areas.
Joseph Pavel, natural resources director for the Skokomish Tribe, said tribal members are happy to have a new area for harvesting located so close to the Skokomish Reservation and accessible by land as well as by boat. That area has been culturally significant to the tribe since long before white settlers arrived on the scene, he said.
“This is a fine example of working together and paying attention to the problems in a way that we can all benefit,” Pavel said.
Alex Paysse, environmental health manager for Mason County Public Health, said the final push for cleaner water in Hoodsport came with the help of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, which provided funding through the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program.
“We did a lot of door-knocking and talking to homeowners about how their septic systems work,” Paysse said. “Some of these septic systems were pretty old, and some had not been working right for many years.”
Hoodsport is a tourist destination with far more people living in town during the summer months, he noted. Health inspectors and water-quality experts located “hot spots” of polluted water draining to the beach. They were able to track most of the pollution back to failing septic systems.
Five of the eight failing septic systems were large commercial systems, and some were expensive to repair. At one time, there was talk of a community sewage-treatment plant, but the funding never came together. With the recent septic improvements, the sewer project is on hold for the foreseeable future.
One source of pollution was the public restrooms operated by the Port of Hoodsport. Until another solution is found, those restrooms have been shut down.
Because of the number of birds and seals in the area, some people suspected wildlife of creating a pollution problem. But resolving the septic problems was enough to bring the water quality into compliance with state and federal standards without addressing wildlife issues, Paysse said.
It isn’t clear whether dog waste left in people’s yards created much of a problem in Hoodsport, and there aren’t many livestock in the watershed. Still, ongoing educational efforts may have been successful in getting people to reduce those sources of pollution.
People who know Hood Canal talk about its unique features when it comes to growing shellfish. Pacific oysters reproduce naturally and grow without artificial cultivation, thanks to warmer waters in summer. The canal has no big cities releasing large quantities of stormwater and sewage effluent nor major industries except for the Navy’s modern submarine base at Bangor.
Consequently, most of the shoreline is approved for shellfish harvesting, and shoreline residents are typically protective of their own beaches and water quality in general, according to Teri King, aquaculture and marine water quality specialist with Washington Sea Grant.
King, who has studied Hood Canal for years, has been involved in Hoodsport pollution problems since 1993, when a team of volunteers — called the Fecal Ferrets — took water samples to figure out where the pollution was coming from. The shellfish beds on Hoodsport’s waterfront were first closed in 1976 because of high bacterial counts, and some of those problems were not resolved until recently. See “Finch Creek Wastewater Feasibility Study” (33.4 mb).
The Hood Canal Coordinating Council has worked on pollution problems in the canal since the group was founded in 1985 by Kitsap, Jefferson and Mason counties along with the Skokomish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes. An immense effort, the Regional Pollution Investigation and Correction Program, was launched in 2014 with a $100,000 grant from the EPA. Since then, the project has undergone four phases searching for and reducing pollution in all three counties at a total cost of $1.4 million.
The latest project is a plan to foster shellfish production and to encourage commercial, tribal and recreational harvests, taking advantage of the extensive growing areas in Hood Canal. Under the Hood Canal Shellfish Initiative, the council adopted an 84-page action plan at the end of last year.
The plan (PDF 1.6 mb) is designed to “honor tribal treaty rights, build resilience, pursue ecosystem protection and restoration, and support careful stewardship of commercial shellfish activities and recreational harvest now and into the future,” the document states. The plan lists 18 priority actions to increase shellfish production, protect water quality and habitat, enhance recreational activities and foster tribal and non-tribal cultural practices.
While the plan largely focuses on shellfish production, it also recognizes concerns about habitat damage and the effects of aquaculture on species other than shellfish — particularly with the intensive cultivation of giant geoduck clams, which often involves protecting each clam in a plastic tube. Alternate methods of cultivation are under review.
Shellfish growers are supporting research to help balance ecosystem protections with efficient growing processes, according to the report. An ongoing court battle involves the environmental effects of shellfish farming, and rulings so far have found that the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental evaluation was inadequate for the approval of a nationwide aquaculture permit. See Our Water Ways, Dec. 31, 2020.
Haley Harguth, watershed program manager for the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, said the council plans to revisit potential environmental problems as part of a new effort involving “marine spatial planning.” This process, which depends on funding, would bring together diverse interests with the goal of identifying areas of Hood Canal where aquaculture should prevail, where the ecosystem should remain undisturbed, and where one or more other uses would be appropriate.
While Hood Canal has a lot of shoreline suitable for commercial shellfish harvesting, the shellfish in general tend to grow slower, and at times the oysters may appear “skinny,” according to Teri King. That’s because the waterway generally produces less plankton for the shellfish to eat. It often takes twice as long to grow a marketable oyster in Hood Canal compared with areas in South Puget Sound, she said.
Some people say the slower-growing shellfish are worth the wait, producing a more tasty oyster.
“They all have their own unique flavor, reflecting the watersheds where they are grown,” King said.
Although the lower plankton density can slow the growth of shellfish, Hood Canal turns out to be a good place for shellfish hatcheries, which produce the “seed” for planting young shellfish on the beach, King said. Less plankton means less filtration needed to obtain clean water used in the shellfish hatchery where tiny mollusks are fed specially bred algae.
Two shellfish hatcheries on Hood Canal near Quilcene supply the greatest quantities of “seed” to shellfish farmers along the West Coast, according to the Economic Development Council of Jefferson County (“EDC Team Jefferson”).
The warmer waters that allow a natural set of clam and oyster larvae in Hood Canal also increase the summer growth of common bacteria called Vibrio parahaemolyticus, thus heightening the risk of intestinal disease among humans eating shellfish. To be on the safe side, Fish and Wildlife experts advise thorough cooking of any shellfish taken from Hood Canal after May 1.
Recreational shellfish harvesting is immensely popular in Hood Canal during most years, but last year — amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — interest was phenomenal, according to Camille Speck of WDFW. At Potlatch State Park, for example, more than 36,000 people showed up during a shortened season, compared to a typical year with 16,000 visitors.
“We’ve never seen numbers like that,” Speck said, attributing the increase to people spending their vacations at home rather than traveling to other areas. Three Hood Canal beaches — Potlatch, Belfair and Twanoh state parks — were all closed early because of the large number of shellfish taken. For details, see the WDFW news release, Aug. 12, 2020. For information about this year’s recreational harvests, check out WDFW’s website on “Public clam, mussel and oyster beaches” and review the map of shellfish beaches.
I first met Camille Speck in 2004 while working on a story about recreational shellfish harvesting. She took me to a beach north of the Hood Canal bridge and offered tips for digging clams that I shared with readers. Prospective diggers might still find some useful info in that story in the Kitsap Sun, May 16, 2004.