Degraded water quality forces Lummi to close shellfish harvest

Lummi tribal members harvest clams in Portage Bay in 2011.
Lummi tribal members harvest clams in Portage Bay in 2011.

High levels of fecal coliform prompted the Lummi Nation to close 335 acres of Portage Bay shellfish beds in September.

The fecal coliform – mostly from livestock, human and pet waste originating upstream from the reservation – exceeds federal bacterial standards, meaning the shellfish could be unsafe to eat. The voluntary closure affects Lummi’s treaty-protected ceremonial, subsistence and commercial harvest.

“The reservation tidelands are deeply affected by activities along the Nooksack River, which flows into Portage Bay,” said Lummi harvest manager Ben Starkhouse.

Lummi shellfish harvesters lost an estimated $8 million in revenue from 1996 to 2006, when 180 acres of shellfish beds were closed for the same reason.

During that closure, more than $8 million was provided to the region’s dairy industry to stop the discharge of manure into the Nooksack River. But after the shellfish beds were reopened, federal and state assistance with inspections and monitoring was substantially reduced.

“I remember when the Portage Bay shellfish beds were re-opened in 2006 – unfortunately, some people haven’t kept up their end of the deal to keep waste out of our water,” said Merle Jefferson, Lummi natural resources director. “As a result, tribal members who did not pollute the water nevertheless have to suffer the consequences of actions or inactions of our upstream neighbors.”

About 200 Lummi families make their living harvesting shellfish, and as many as 5,000 community members rely on the shellfish beds for ceremonial and subsistence purposes.

“Failure of our upstream partners to follow the policies developed to respond to the last closure has led to this disaster,” said Lummi Nation Chairman Timothy Ballew II. “Immediate actions are needed to right the problem.”

Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran said the federal agency shares Lummi’s concern.

“EPA is providing significant funding for fecal coliform reduction programs as well as conducting compliance activities in the watershed,” McLerran said. “We are committed to work with the Lummi Nation, state and local governments, and others to achieve sustained improvements in water quality.”

For more information, contact: Merle Jefferson, natural resources director, Lummi Nation, 360-410-1706 or [email protected]; Kari Neumeyer, information officer, NWIFC, 360-424-8226 or [email protected].