Portage Bay shellfish beds open in spring — Worth celebrating, but not expected to be a permanent fix

March 19, 2019


On March 19, Whatcom County announced that shellfish beds in Portage Bay will open for harvest in the spring.

This is great news for shellfish harvesters and for Lummi Nation ceremonial, subsistence and commercial harvests.

“We strive for a healthier Portage Bay, where a harvest closure is a bigger surprise than a harvest reopening,” said Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper at RE Sources and member of the Portage Bay Shellfish District Advisory Committee. “We applaud the work that has led to this moment. It is critical that we keep a collaborative process to make economically and ecologically damaging harvest closures an extreme case.”

This spring opening is definitely worth celebrating, but is only part of the picture. The pattern of fall shellfish harvest closure is still anticipated due to the rainy season elevating levels of fecal coliform bacteria entering local streams and other waterways. Fecal coliform bacteria is an indicator that there is feces from warm-blooded animals, and likely pathogens, in the water. Dangerous spikes in fecal coliform levels can still occur, particularly after autumn rain events throughout our county, including Portage Bay and in the Nooksack River that flows into it. When harvest was closed for 10 years due to the bacteria levels from 1996-2006, Lummi Nation lost over $8 million in revenue. Portions of the harvest area were closed again in 2014.

Although Whatcom County data from February 2016 to January 2019 shows that average bacteria counts often meet health standards for most of the watershed, 70 percent of test sites also have unacceptably high spikes after rainfall, carrying bacteria into Portage Bay.

We should strive for a level of community engagement and collaboration that led to Drayton Harbor’s successful shellfish bed reopening in 2017, after 22 years of bacteria-related closures. As a member of the Portage Bay Shellfish District Advisory Committee, RE Sources works alongside farmers, tribes and concerned residents to advise the Whatcom County Council on actions and operations relating to the restoration of water quality in the Portage Bay watershed.