Dungeness Bay water quality improvement prompts upgrade

Opportunities open locally for commercial shellfisheries

Hundreds of acres in and around Dungeness Bay are now open for year-round commercial shellfish harvesting after state officials recently upgraded the area’s water quality classification.

Although the upgrade doesn’t impact fisheries like crab, nor recreational clam diggers because all beaches on the Dungeness Spit are in the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge with limited public access, it does target filter feeders, such as clams and oysters and those with commercial shellfish or aquaculture interests, like the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe who once operated an oyster farm in the bay.

“Most recreational clamming occurs on public tidelands, like Sequim Bay State Park,” Rich Childers, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife puget sound shellfish manager, said.

“It’s all very good news,” Childers said. “Anytime possibilities are opened back up in growing areas that were once polluted is a good thing.”

Officials with Washington State Department of Health reclassified 688 acres in the bay from “Conditionally Approved” to “Approved” and 40 acres from “Prohibited” to “Conditionally Approved” — reflecting a reduction of fecal coliform bacteria sampled from the bay and used to indicate the potential presence of harmful bacteria or viruses.

The Dungeness Bay commercial shellfish growing is one of 103 areas that equate to the 300,000-plus acres overseen by DOH for water quality and to ensure standards, Scott Berbells, DOH shellfish growing area section manager, said.

Each growing area is classified based on the results of consecutive, ongoing annual sanitary surveys that determine whether or not shellfish in the area can be harvested for human consumption.

“This is a very significant upgrade for us and really highlights the watershed’s stewards,” Berbells said.

The bay underwent “significant downgrades” in 2001 and 2003, he said.

The downgrade in 2003 classified the entire inner bay as “Conditionally Approved,” leaving it open to commercial shellfish harvest from February-October only, and closed during the winter months because of elevated fecal coliform bacteria throughout November-January.

The downgrade caused Jamestown Seafood, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe’s seafood business and oyster farm located within the growing area, to close in 2005.

“We tried to keep the oyster operation going for a few years, but it just wasn’t economically viable,” Scott Chitwood, Jamestown S’Klallam tribe natural resources department director, said. “It was sad, and a lot of people lost jobs.”

“Now, 10 years later here we are, and the question is whether we can get another oyster farm back in operation, and I think the answer is yes,” he said. “The tribe is very interested in pursuing aquaculture in the bay again.”

Refocusing, restoring bay’s health

The past downgrades were consistent with the bay’s historic association with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, according to Clallam County records. By 1997, the bacteria levels near the mouth of the Dungeness River and entering the bay exceeded the federal limit for fecal coliform.

In 2000 DOH officials reclassified 300 acres of Dungeness Bay from “Approved” to “Prohibited” year-round for commercial shellfish harvest — spearheading multiple downgrades to shortly follow.

But as the bay’s water quality worsened, the concerns and efforts to restore the health of the bay grew. In 2001 the Board of Clallam County Commissioners formed the Sequim-Dungeness Clean Water District that encompasses the Dungeness watershed and those waters influenced by it through the irrigation system, and other independent tributaries to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, from Bagley Creek east to and including, the Sequim Bay watershed.

Collaborative watershed clean up projects and monitoring by, but not limited to, personnel with Clallam County Environmental Health Services, the Clallam Conservation District, Jamestown S’Klallam tribe and private landowners began to better the bay. In 2011 DOH officials upgraded about 500 acres of the Dungeness Bay commercial shellfish growing area from “Prohibited” to “Conditionally Approved.”

“We’re very pleased with the bay upgrade,” Joe Holtrop, Clallam Conservation District executive director, said. “We’ve been working very hard on this for a long time.”

Ranchers have a hand

More than 21 miles of irrigation ditches that once transported nonpoint pollution and contaminated tailwater to Dungeness Bay are piped as a result of the Clallam Conservation District.

“We think the irrigation ditch piping helped a lot,” Holtrop said.

The district also works with farmers and ranchers within the watershed to implement agricultural best management practices to reduce possible pollutant sources, as well as nearby homeowners to repair failing septic systems. Through the Onsite Septic System Repair Cost-Share Program launched a year and a half ago by officials with the Clallam Conservation District in partnership with the Clallam County Environmental Health Services, six failing septic systems, including four draining into Dungeness Bay were repaired last year, Holtrop said.

“Being near Dungeness Bay and the high winter water table required a costly, specialized septic system repair when our septic system failed this past winter,” Darcie Clawson, homeowner said. “The Clallam Conservation District Cost-Share Program made a huge impact for us and helped us be able to stay in our home.”

Looking ahead

To combat future downgrades, collaborative efforts between the various agencies and local stakeholders are emerging and continuing, such as the Clallam Conservation Districts’s development of the Pollution Identification and Correction plan (PIC plan).

The PIC plan now being implemented by the environmental health services officials seeks to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of improving water quality in the bay and surrounding waterways.

Although event details are still underway, officials with the Governor’s Office, DOH and Puget Sound Partnership plan to host a celebration within November to recognize the collective efforts that have led to the Dungness Bay commercial shellfish growing area upgrade.


Sequim Bay closed to butter, varnish clams

For shellfish harvesters in Clallam County, Sequim Bay is closed to butter and varnish clams only, the Clallam County Department of Health and Human Services department announced last week. There are no shellfish closures from the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Cape Flattery east to the Jefferson County line.