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A Partnership For Shellfish Harvest Resiliency

Oyster in Seaweed

As this year comes to a close, we have been spending time reflecting over the past year. As part of that reflection, we decided to share an impactful project that came to completion earlier this year between the Whatcom Conservation District, the Lummi Nation, the Washington State Conservation Commission, and Whatcom County farmers. The focus of this project was to reduce the vulnerability of the Lummi tribal shellfish harvesters to the closure of Portage Bay by enhancing the production of shellfish in the nearby Lummi Bay.

The Portage Bay shellfish beds are exclusively used by the Lummi tribal members for the harvest of shellfish for commercial, ceremonial, and sustenance purposes. However, these shellfish beds are prone to closure from high bacterial contamination because of the proximity to the Nooksack River mouth. The Nooksack River has a large watershed, which means vast amounts of water from as far away as Canada all flow to the Nooksack River. Along that water’s journey there are many potential sources of bacteria including failing septic systems, livestock, and wildlife. Lummi Bay, located on the other side of the Lummi Peninsula, has higher water quality, but had other barriers for shellfish harvest.

Gravel Barge

Much of Lummi Bay was unsuitable for growing shellfish as the substrate is devoid of gravel. Gravel is important to protect shellfish from predators by affording a physical barrier. This partnership and associated funding was formed to enhance the harvest area by making the beds suitable to grow shellfish by spreading gravel from a barge.

Whatcom County farmers initiated the project with the Lummi Nation and the Conservation Commission in 2017. Lummi Nation staff developed the project, drew up the designs, advertised for contractors, awarded the contracts, oversaw the construction and spread the gravel over the shellfish beds. The Washington State Conservation Commission approved a $422,000 grant for this project. Commission staff supported the project at each stage and made it possible to overcome the setbacks. Whatcom CD administered the grant at no charge and liaised between tribal staff and the State Conservation Commission.

The project went through many phases, and nothing initially went as planned. There were delays when defective infrastructure was discovered. This necessitated additional permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a new pier and ramp suitable to support the gravel spreading barge. The field construction work could then only be completed at seasonally low or high tides. The initial anticipated work-window was missed. Everyone involved was creative, patient, understanding, and responsive. This perseverance paid off. The pier and ramp construction was completed in late 2019. The gravel spreading process began soon after.

Through many phases and the amazing work by the Lummi Shellfish Hatchery staff, Lummi bay has increased its capacity to support the shellfish harvest. This work has lessened the hardship experienced by the Lummi people who have depended on this resource since time immemorial. The project resulted in the Tribal Partnership Award from the Washington Association of Conservation Districts.

We at the Whatcom Conservation District are proud to have been a part of this project, and to have been able to work with so many dedicated partners to increase Lummi bay shellfish harvest capacity for the Lummi Nation. We aspire to continue collaborating on other projects with as lasting of an impact into the future.

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