A proposal from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe to reestablish oyster farming in Dungeness Bay is undergoing a third-party review to address the monitoring of shorebirds and waterfowl — and how impacts of the farming project will be monitored — as the tribe looks to begin construction of its long-awaited aquaculture project.
Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. contracted with Clallam County Department of Community Development to conduct the review of the Avian Monitoring Plan for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s Dungeness Bay Oyster Farm, a project that by a third phase could see as many as 80,000 bags placed on the bottom of a 34-acre site within Dungeness Bay.
Elizabeth Tobin, shellfish program manager with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said the consultant, West EcoSystems Technology, Inc., completed the review but that the tribe has not yet received a final report, or any required or recommended revisions to the avian monitoring methods.
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has finalized the existing monitoring plan, the county needs to provide final approval of the Avian Monitoring Plan before the tribe can begin Phase 1 operations, Tobin said. (Phase 1 allows for a 5-acre area of on-bottom bag cultivation at a maximum commercial bag density of 4,000 bags per acre.)
In a technical memorandum to DCD director Mary Ellen Winborn and DCD senior planner Greg Ballard on Jan. 7, consultants from West EcoSystems Technology, Inc., described the scope of the plan that includes “adaptive management measures to respond to any identified adverse responses of shorebirds and waterfowl to operations. The inclusion of an adaptive management plan into the Plan minimizes the potential for repeated adverse responses to birds.”
Despite establishment of the plan, citizens and community groups continue to have concerns about multiple aspects of the proposed oyster farm project, however.
Local environmentalist Darlene Schanfald said three major concerns she sees remain: loss of bird feeding and rearing grounds, introduction of plastics into the marine ecosystem and animals, and impacts to the eelgrass beds.
“Aquaculture is polluting, period,” Schanfald said. “Bottomlands get wrecked, poisons get spewed around.”
State lawmakers is developing legislation protecting these beds, she notes, with House Bill 1661 (“Conserving and restoring kelp forests and eelgrass meadows in Washington state”).
“The permitting governments for the oyster operation seemed to have ignored this legislation,” she said.
Schanfald noted all of the money being spent to clean up Puget Sound — funds that in her view are being wasted by allowing aquaculture projects.
“You can’t clean up Puget Sound if you’re putting out shelfish farms and net pens,” she said.
The tribe is also partnering with Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm steelhead trout in net pens in Port Angeles Harbor, a decision upheld appealed to but upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court.
The Friends of Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge note on their website numerous other concerns about the project, including plastic debris from the mesh bags (“wildlife could potentially get trapped in the mesh or ingest the plastic debris as it breaks down”), issues for tourists (“the proposed location could negatively impact the view and experience of the 100,000 annual Refuge visitors with the visual pollution of … mesh bags, and boats and workers in the area”) and significant disturbances to wildlife from noise pollution.
Dungeness Bay is an important bird area in the Northwest, the National Audubon Society notes: “Dungeness Bay, one of the premier estuaries in the Pacific Northwest, is used by tens of thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and waterfowl during migration and winter. Its sandflats and mudflats provide extensive feeding areas for shorebirds. Subtidal eelgrass beds and associated fauna support significant populations of Brant, diving ducks, seabirds, loons, grebes, and other diving birds.”
Jim Karr, a retired professor, sought to detail the importance of Dungeness Bay’s eelgrass as he and others protested the shellfish project just outside the Refuge in October 2021.
“The eelgrass is a principle habitat for many kinds of invertebrates, larval fish … many of the components of the base of the food chain,” he said.
“The success of any species in the bay … is dependent on the matrix of hundreds of other species that are present,” he said.
“You can’t protect them unless you’ve protected the processes and the elements of the system that interact.”
In reviewing the third-party review of the avian monitoring plan by Western EcoSystems Technology, Karr said the report was vague and lacked specifics to improve the tribe’s monitoring plan.
“The report touches ever so lightly on many of the important topics, re the need to track multiple attributes of the target bird groups (especially shorebirds and waterfowl) defined by the hearing process,” he said.
“(The) report hints at things that would be good, but without the clearer and more accurate statement that these are essential for a successful scientific evaluation of the effects of oyster aquaculture on the target species in the NWR.”
The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in the 1990s bought The Oyster House at Cline Spit and took over a shellfishing lease active since 1953.
Water quality took a significant downturn in the mid- and late 1990s. As recorded in the tribe’s Tribal Newsletter in September 2021, “from 1997 to 2005, the elevated fecal coliform created a number of downgrades in the commercial growing area – particularly in the Inner Bay, where the Tribe’s aquatic lease for shellfish farming is located.”
By 2011, efforts to improve water quality had paid off and in 2015 the tribe began exploring permit requirements to restart shellfish operations.
“When we first began in the (19)90s, we didn’t need a permit,” Tobin noted in the September 2021 newsletter. “The lease with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was in holdover status for shellfish harvesting. But when we began discussions in 2015, the permit requirements had changed.”
To extend its lease, the tribe in turn had to obtain a series of permits, including a Shoreline Use Permit, Washington State Ecology Coastal Zone Consistency and Section 401 Water Quality Certification permits, and a federal permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Tribe agreed to a lot of mitigation and monitoring, in order to show that our small farm (34 acres) would not adversely impact aquatic plants or animals,” Tobin wrote.
“This was of major concern to local environmentalists and the staff at the Dungeness Wildlife Refuge (run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service).”
According to the tribe’s newsletter, “It is always the Tribe’s intention to be stewards of the land and sea, and our practices are designed to have minimal impact. Although monitoring is costly and time consuming, it not only gives the public data to set their minds at ease, it provides the Tribe with a feedback loop through which we can improve our methods.”
Tribe officials then filed their permits for construction of the oyster farm on its 50-acre leased site with the Department of Natural Resources.
In January 2020, county hearings examiner Andrew M. Reeves approved the first phase of the project to move forward — a 5-acre area of on-bottom bag cultivation at a maximum commercial bag density of 4,000 bags per acre, as well as on-bottom beach harvest of mature oysters.
Reeves, however, declined to allow for the tribe to expand to Phase 2 — which would increase cultivation to 10 acres — or into Phase 3, one that would would increase cultivation to up to 20 acres in rotation over the 34-acre project site, with maximum of 80,000 bags being used.
“There is insufficient current data … to fully assess long-term impacts from this type of operation, especially in relation to the Refuge,” Reeves wrote.
“Thus, limiting approval to Phase 1 alone, at this time, is warranted. In addition, conditions are necessary to mitigate specific impacts of Phase 1 of the proposal, including conditions ensuring that ongoing monitoring of impacts of the proposal, especially in relation to the Refuge, occur.”
Moving on to Phase 2 would take years, Tobin noted in an email this week.
“Additional site-specific data collection is required to assess potential impacts from the Phase 1 operations which has been incorporated into the permit conditions as part of the tribe’s commitment to scientific monitoring,” she wrote.
Based on the hearing examiner’s February 2020 decision, Tobin said, the tribe can request after two to five years of operations that the hearing be re-opened to evaluate Phase 1, and determine whether it’s appropriate for additional phases of the project to be approved.
In March 2021, the Department of Ecology approved its permit for the oyster aquaculture project, with 12 conditions; among them submitted of annual monitoring reports of eelgrass areas to the county DCD and Ecology for review and approval, and annual inspection of bags — and replacement, as necessary, of any bags showing deterioration.
Schanfald also noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on its permit in June and Ecology followed suit, despite more than 100 commenters from national organizations, nonprofits and citizens who were opposed to the project.
In September 2021, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources approved the land lease for the proposed oyster farm within the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge — one of the key final hurdles in the approval process.