Rana Brown, shellfish biologist for the Squaxin Island Tribe, talks to a commercial shellfish grower while surveying the beach that community effort helped reopen by improving water quality.

The Squaxin Island Tribe worked cooperatively with neighbors and government partners to improve water quality to open shellfish harvest near Church Point outside Shelton after a three-year closure.

Shellfish are an integral part of both the tribe’s cultural identity and economy. Clean water is necessary for harvest, and it can be increasingly difficult to maintain water quality as rural populations expand rapidly.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) detected high fecal coliform bacterial counts in shoreline freshwater surveys in 2016. A group effort narrowed down the suspected causes, said Erica Marbet, water resources biologist for the Squaxin Island Tribe.

The tribe, DOH and Mason County Public Health each increased the frequency and number of locations where they sampled water quality in the Church Point neighborhood.

“Mason County did dye tests for septic tanks in the area to search for failing systems, and also to rule out septic systems that were working fine,” Marbet said. “Freshwater samples in the neighborhood had sporadic high readings of contamination that didn’t have a clear source.”

Many things can cause water quality to degrade, such as leaking septic systems, and waste from wild and domestic animals, including Canada geese, livestock and pets.

“When you have an increase in population in a rural area like Mason County, you get a lot of 5-acre lots that tend to push and consolidate wildlife in the remaining open areas that can then consolidate their waste,” Marbet said.

Frequently, there also are small, personal farms with a few livestock, so these various waste sources in upland areas wash into streams when it rains.

“Neighbor awareness was another important step,” Marbet said.

The tribe held a neighborhood “Shellfish Downstream” gathering at Church Point, Marbet said.

“Taylor Shellfish was there along with Squaxin and Mason County,” she said. “We talked about the ways waste ends up downstream. This includes managing waste of ‘farm-lets’ with a few chickens or goats. Even a concentration of rats getting into animal feed can add to the problem.”

There was no need for major repairs on septic systems or enforcement action. Over a period of time, the water quality readings improved and the DOH was satisfied that harvest could again occur on the beach. The first harvest in nearly three years occurred in October.

”We appreciate the response from neighbors and the assistance from our management partners that made harvest possible again,” said Andy Whitener, Natural Resources Director for the tribe.