SHELTON (February 13, 2006) – Oakland Bay, the nation’s leading source of manila clams, may soon be closed to shellfish harvest because of pollution. The Squaxin Island Tribe says that failing septic systems and bad farming practices around the bay are threatening water quality and shellfish populations.
Oakland Bay water quality was barely below the line that would have required several shellfish beaches to be closed due to fecal coliform pollution, according to the state Department of Health. “Oakland Bay dodged a bullet,” said Jim Peters, chairman of the Squaxin Island Tribe. “But from the trends we see, the situation out there isn’t getting better.”
“There are immediate actions that can be taken to reverse the course we’re going down,” said John Konovsky, environmental program manager for the tribe. In addition to immediately shutting down septic systems that are leaking pollutants into the bay, farming practices can be changed so they don’t harm water quality, he said.
“We know that sometimes homeowners may not know their septic systems aren’t working, we don’t blame individuals for this problem,” said Peters. “We all need to step forward together to tackle this issue.” The tribe and local shellfish companies, in cooperation with the state Department of Health, have increased monitoring of the bay and pinpointed a few properties as potential sources of pollution.
“We want to work with the county, state and federal governments to solve this problem,” said Peters. The county’s public health responsibility includes protecting water quality. The state and federal governments are bound by federal and state clean water laws that mandate safe water bodies.
A harvest closure in Oakland Bay would be disastrous for tribal harvesters and would hamstring the local shellfish industry, a vital part of the Mason County economy. “Tribal members always have depended on shellfish as a source of nutrition, for income and as a way of life,” said Peters. “Tribal households depend on shellfish harvest to round out their family incomes and important traditional food.”
Private shellfish farmers are among the largest employers in Mason County. “Protecting the environment and clean water is about protecting jobs,” said Peters. “Families depend on the shellfish industry here.”
A similar closure of Dungeness Bay in Clallam County in 2000 devastated the shellfish industry there. “Even though local officials up there are working hard to open Dungeness Bay, the closure area just keeps getting bigger,” said Peters. “Hopefully, we can prevent a situation like that in Oakland Bay.”
The Squaxin Tribe has a rich shellfishing tradition. Oakland Bay is a special place for the tribe because it is home to one of the few elders’ beaches, a place where tribal seniors can easily access shellfish. “It would be a tragedy if Oakland Bay isn’t safe for harvest because nothing was done,” said Peters. “We’re looking down the barrel of a gun, we need to save this bay.”
For more information, contact: Jim Peters, chairman, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 426-9781. John Konovsky, environmental program manager, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3815. Emmett O’Connell, South Sound information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, [email protected]