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The blue line shows the cumulative change in acres as a result of upgrades (green) and downgrades (gray) in shellfish beds, resulting from improvements and declines in water quality. The goal was 10,800 acres of upgrades from 2007 to 2020. For specific numbers, go to Harvestable Shellfish Beds and place the curser on portions of the graph.
Chart: Washington State Department of Health

Winding down Puget Sound’s 2020 targets, as approved shellfish acreage keeps going up

In 2020, state health authorities upgraded six shellfish-growing areas in various parts of Puget Sound. Now, thanks to improved water quality, the harvest of clams and oysters can take place on these 309 acres for the first time in years, adding to an ongoing gain in harvestable acreage.

While efforts to upgrade shellfish growing areas will continue into the future, these new results for 2020 represent the last time that state shellfish managers will be working toward a specific acreage goal set for the year 2020. Now, with 2020 in the rearview mirror, we can expect to see an accounting of the gains and losses during the 10-year effort to achieve 2020 “targets” — not only for shellfish but also for other Vital Signs indicators. Look for the next State of the Sound report to be issued this fall by the Puget Sound Partnership.

The target set by the Partnership in 2011 called for upgrading at least 10,800 acres of shellfish beds by 2020 after subtracting areas that were downgraded. In the end, 13,838 acres were upgraded, offset by 7,179 acres downgraded, for a net improvement of 6,659 acres.

Oyster farming in southern Puget Sound // Photo: C Dunagan

These figures are reflected in the graph shown at the top of this page. To access a dynamic graph that reveals the underlying numbers, go to the Shellfish Beds webpage and place your curser on the blue line for cumulative totals or on the bars for annual results. In addition, you may access a list of all the upgrades and downgrades (PDF 173 kb) for each year going back to 2007.

In addition to the 309-acre upgrade during 2020, another 68 acres were downgraded last year, leaving a net increase of 241 acres of harvestable shellfish beds.

The six areas upgraded in 2020 are in Port Orchard Passage in Kitsap County, 137 acres; Port Madison in Kitsap County, 68 acres; Colvos Passage in Kitsap County, 24 acres; Colvos Passage in King County, 57 acres; and two Jamestown sites in Clallam County, one at 11 acres, the other at 12 acres. The two downgraded areas are in Dyes Inlet in Kitsap County, 50 acres, and Henderson Bay in Pierce County, 18 acres.

Looking back, if an unexpected downgrade of 4,037 acres in Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound could have been avoided, then the total downgrade since 2007 would have been 3,142 acres. That would raise the net increase in growing areas to 10,696 acres — just shy of the 10,800-acre target for 2020.

Of course, pointing to the water-quality problems in Samish Bay doesn’t make the problems go away or erase the 4,000 acres of shellfish beds where harvesting — or not — depends upon strict conditions related to rainfall and bacterial counts. A coalition of local organizations, called the Clean Samish Initiative, has been working hard to reduce pollution coming from a variety of sources. They have had considerable success, but the remaining bacterial pollution is proving hard to find and eliminate. Check out:

Scott Berbells, manager of the Shellfish Growing Area Section within the Washington State Department of Health, says the effort to reduce pollution and reopen shellfish beds has been successful overall. Under the program, 93 upgrades have been accomplished compared to 36 downgrades.

In many areas, the effort to improve water quality has involved a good deal of detective work, as water-quality inspectors track pollution from the beaches to upstream sources — including failing septic systems, livestock and pet waste, and sometimes wild animals.

“The easy pollution sources have been corrected,” Scott said, adding that more sophisticated techniques are being used to track down pollution, even as property owners are asked to voluntarily use tried-and-proven methods of reducing bacterial discharges.

Prime Drayton Harbor oyster. Photo: Steve Seymour
Prime oyster from Drayton Harbor, northern Puget Sound // Photo: Steve Seymour

“We are on a positive trajectory,” Scott said, “and we need to keep the momentum going.”

To that end, Scott and a host of other people are in early discussions to consider new targets for the various Puget Sound Vital Signs. Most of that work will occur next year, starting with a “scoping” effort.

“Part of the scoping is renewing the purpose of having targets, being clear about their use,” said the Partnership’s Nathalie Hamel in an email, “and also … determining for what types of measures to set targets.”

The Partnership recently completed a major revision to the Puget Sound Vital Signs and is now undergoing a transition from old to new ecosystem indicators. Check out the factsheet, report on the changes and other documents, all linked from the section titled “The new and revised Vital Signs and indicators” on the Puget Sound Vital Signs webpage. See also the Puget Sound Institute blog post on the subject by Jeff Rice.

I found it interesting to look back to a 2011 report authored by Scott Berbells and folks at the Partnership as they considered how many acres of shellfish beds might reasonably be opened to harvest. See “Setting targets of dashboard indicators” (PDF 534 kb). Downgrades were so extensive in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the need to attack the problem was clear. The authors recommended a 10,000-acre goal. They never anticipated that a 4,000-acre downgrade was just around the corner.

Based on the types of nonpoint pollution leading to shellfish restrictions and closures today, officials believe that up to around 16,000 acres of commercial growing areas could still be reopened if the right pollution-control measures are implemented.

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