SHELTON The Squaxin Island Tribe is counting birds and bird waste in Oakland Bay to see if they could be causing a summer fecal coliform pollution problem.

The bird counting project is the latest study by the tribe to track down the source of an unusual pollution spike in upper Oakland Bay, part of one of the most productive shellfish growing areas in the world. Fecal coliform bacteria is a product of human and animal waste and usually doesn’t survive long in saltwater, so its ability to persist in Oakland Bay during the summer is an anomoly.

“Typically, because bacteria are washed into the bay by rain, we see pollution spikes in the winter,” Konovsky said. “But in Oakland Bay the increase in pollution occurs during the dry summer months. Without rainfall to move bacteria over larger distances, we are looking more locally for the source.”

It is possible that a large amount of bird waste is collecting on the intertidal zone of Oakland Bay during low tides causing the summer pollution. “There aren’t likely enough birds in upper Oakland Bay to cause this level of pollution,” Konovsky said. “But we need to actually get out here and count, just so we can cross birds off the list.”

Last year, the tribe built two replicas of Oakland Bay to isolate the conditions that are causing fecal bacteria to spike. While the experiment failed to isolate any particular cause, it did point to several possibilities, including massive amounts of bird waste.

The uppermost portion of Oakland Bay remains restricted for shellfish harvest in the summer. “We need to reverse the trend now,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the tribe. “More harvest closures in Oakland Bay would be disastrous for tribal harvesters and would devastate the shellfish industry, a vital part of the local economy.”

“Tribal members always have depended on shellfish as a source of nutrition, for income and as a way of life,” Whitener said. “Our treaty right to harvest shellfish depends on healthy shellfish, so we need to track down and solve this pollution problem.”

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For more information, contact: John Konovsky, environmental program manager, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3804. Emmett O’Connell, South Sound information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, eoconnell@nwifc.org.