Shellfish near a sewage outfall might be contaminated, but that’s no reason not to harvest it.

This spring, Swinomish tribal members harvested clams for the first time near Monroe Landing on Whidbey Island. While not safe for human consumption, the shellfish can be used for crab bait. Any traces of bacteria ingested by the crab would be destroyed when it is cooked.

The bait fishery allowed tribal members to continue to exercise their treaty right to gather shellfish, even though water pollution has taken away the ability to eat one of their traditional foods.

At the end of each day of the bait fishery, tribal diggers brought their harvest to shellfish biologist Julie Barber and fisheries technician Dora Finkbonner, who dunked the bags of butter clams and cockles in blue dye, like Easter eggs. The blue dye is required by the state Department of Health to let buyers know that the clams are not for eating. The buyer tags also are marked, “not for human consumption – bait use only.” Tribal diggers either sold the bait or planned to use it themselves.

Northwest tribes have a long history of living off the land and making the most of the region’s natural resources.

“We’ve lost so much of our traditional gathering areas to development and habitat degradation,” said Swinomish fisheries manager Lorraine Loomis. “I wanted to provide a harvest opportunity for fishermen who don’t have boats.”

Fecal coliform pollution and stormwater runoff are an increasing problem in the tribe’s usual and accustomed shellfish gathering areas. Shellfish beds often are closed to harvest following heavy rains. Despite federal funding to a Skagit County project to clean up Samish Bay, 4,000 acres of shellfish beds were downgraded recently, prompting Gov. Chris Gregoire to call the cleanup a “failure.”

View more photos at NWIFC’s Flickr feed.

For more information, contact: Julie Barber, Swinomish shellfish biologist, 360-466-7315 or jbarber@skagitcoop.org; Kari Neumeyer, NWIFC information officer, 360-424-8226 or kneumeyer@nwifc.org.