Here on the gravel shore of Little Skookum Inlet, just south of Shelton, Brett Bishop shucks another native Olympia oyster and hands it to me. The Olympia is the Northwest’s only native oyster. It is also fabulously unprofitable.
“They’re exquisitely sensitive,” says Bishop. In fact, they’re downright wimpy when it comes to temperature extremes. Worse for the grower, if not the gourmand, they take forever to grow. While clams and other oysters reach market size in two years or less, the Olympia can take four to five years. Even then, they’re still quite small.
Olympia oysters are a very small part of Bishop’s family’s business, Little Skookum Shellfish. Clams are far more lucrative and make up 85 percent of their sales. From a business perspective, Olympia oysters are mainly a labor of love.
But boy, are they good. Save your frying or stewing or grilling for their introduced inferiors, the Pacifics and Kumomotos. And no Tabasco or lemon, please, nor anything to mask their amazing taste. Olympias should be eaten just as they are, raw from the shell with their liquor. And preferably right next to the water from which they came.
“They have an intense, complex flavor,” says Bishop. “Japanese oysters basically taste like what you cook them in.”
There’s an oniony taste toward the end, I notice.
“Yeah,” says Bishop, “and a nutty flavor, too.”
Yes sir, I have found heaven here on Little Skookum Inlet.
So has Bishop.
True, there’s a downside to raising shellfish. Puget Sound has two high and two low tides every day. Shellfish are generally harvested during the dominant low tide. But the dominant low tide in summer is during the day, and the dominant low tide in winter is at night.
“You can recognize a shellfish grower,” says Bishop. They’re dazed and confused, with large coffees in hand. “My family is just getting up when I’m going to bed.
“But it’s worth it. I’d suffer something twice as bad to do it. I love this place, I love this way of life. And I love growing food of this quality and sharing it with people.”
Bishop is a lucky man, in more ways than one.
The water in the Little Skookum Inlet of Puget Sound might well be cleaner than the last glass of water you drank. The quality standard as measured by fecal coliform count is more restrictive in Washington for shellfish-growing waters than they are for drinking water.
Shellfish themselves really don’t mind a little fecal coliform. They’re perfectly happy to ingest your waste. But shellfish that have been dining on such would not go down well with you. Shellfish are filter feeders. They feed continuously, sucking in water, filtering out the meaty stuff, then spurting it back out. A mature oyster can filter 50 to 60 gallons of water a day.
Unfortunately, Little Skookum is the exception, rather than the rule, on Puget Sound. The area has good zoning laws, says Bishop, restricting subdivision development to one unit per five acres. Also, much of the Little Skookum Creek watershed is timberland, owned largely by Port Blakely and Simpson timber companies. Port Blakely has determined it will not sell any of its land for development, except for schools or parks.
It’s development, of course, that threatens Puget Sound. The area’s 3.8 million population is expected to grow to 5.2 million within the next 15 years.
Even in his protected inlet, Bishop is well aware of a fundamental equation that will determine the fate of his livelihood and, ultimately, of Puget Sound. The variables include the number of people in the watershed, the number of acres of impervious surfaces versus absorbent soils, the ability of the marine environment to process pollutants and rejuvenate itself, and many other complex factors that a great number of scientists and public officials are puzzling over.
“Here in this bay,” says Bishop, “I’m optimistic that my children will be able to grow shellfish. Maybe another generation.”
But move out through Totten Inlet into the greater Puget Sound, and Bishop has grave concerns.
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in 2002, Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said that since 1985 the western United States has lost 29 percent of shellfish-growing areas to non-point pollution—”from failing septic systems, increased impervious surfaces and road runoff, and agricultural wastes.”
So can anything be done, or should we just succumb to growth and forget about eating raw Olympias from the Puget Sound and wave goodbye to the orcas and steelhead and all the other critters affected by the increased human population pressure?
Bishop is surprisingly optimistic, and yes, he does know exactly what can be done.
“Two things,” he says. “Education and technology.”
Karen Lippy ’81 watches, bemused, as a couple of students swish nets around in the small stream we’re standing next to. They’re just starting to hone their technique for gathering benthic (bottom-living) invertebrates. Lippy gives them some brief instruction. “And tomorrow grab the bigger nets.”
Regardless, invertebrates are showing up in the inadequate nets. “I got bunches of bugs,” says one boy.
“Mayflies,” says Lippy, picking them out of the net.
“This stream had no salmon in it when we came down here,” she says.
“Here” is the Theler Wetlands Education Center in Belfair, at the head of Hood Canal. Sam Theler had left his land to the North Mason School District. Originally this spot was to be a ball field. But that was nixed by the Corps of Engineers, because it would have involved filling in a wetland. So it became instead the current 155-acre education site with what is now a salmon-bearing stream which, due to the efforts of Lippy’s aquatic biology students, has 10 years of data affixed to it.
The stream is only a mile or so long. But now there’s a hatchery upstream run by the Belfair Elementary School, which annually sends over 100,000 chum downstream into Hood Canal. Lippy and her students started putting salmon carcasses in the stream, as nutrient sources, and now the Coho have come back naturally.
It wasn’t long ago in geologic time that this area of Puget Sound was scoured by glaciers. Twelve or fifteen thousand years is scant time to build soil from rock. “We’re actually standing on material from Canada,” says Lippy, referring to the nutrient-poor glacial soil of the area.
What little soil nutrients that had built up over the last few thousand years were generally depleted in early logging of the area. Clearcutting was traditionally followed by burning.
The only nutrient sources for the local ecosystem are the alder tree, which is nitrogen-fixing, and salmon. The salmon carcass as a nutrient source moves through the whole system through animals, says Lippy. Analyses have shown evidence of marine-derived nutrients in 137 species. So the health of the system, she says, is directly related to the health of the salmon runs that come back up the streams to spawn. Salmon don’t do well swimming up a foodless stream. When the salmon nutrients were returned to this stream, so followed the live salmon.
Herein lies the irony of Hood Canal. Whereas the land surrounding Hood Canal is nutrient deficient, the canal itself appears to be too nutrient rich, causing the algal blooms that plague it in the summer. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and rot, consuming oxygen in the process, leading, with other factors, to the dearth of dissolved oxygen that suffocates fish.
Likely culprits such as septic system contamination and agricultural runoff aside, assessing the absolute cause of the problems of Hood Canal is difficult because of its peculiar nature. It is actually not a canal at all, but a glacier-carved fjord, a long, narrow inlet of Puget Sound.
What keeps the main Sound as clean as it is, in spite of its 3.8 million residents, is the continuous exchange of water between the Sound and the Pacific, the twice-a-day tidal flush. Most inlets benefit from this flush also. But the flush of tides in Hood Canal is partially blocked by a massive sill near its mouth. Although the canal is deep, because of that sill only so much water can flow in and out with the tides. So deeper portions of the canal, particularly below the sharp elbow where it turns back east, suffer from low dissolved oxygen.
There arises then the major question of whether this low dissolved oxygen would be a problem, even if the canal were not lined with thousands of homes and their septic tanks and lawn fertilizers. Or if storm runoff weren’t flushing automobile-deposited hydrocarbons off the roads and parking lots around it. In spite of those thousands of homes, there is no sewage treatment plant anywhere on Hood Canal—except at Alderbrook, the luxury resort owned by Jeff and Tricia ’78 Raikes.
A well-functioning septic tank with a well-functioning drainfield in suitable soil works pretty well at containing the more directly pathogenic parts of human sewage. What a conventional septic system does not do, says Bob Simmons, is stop most of the nitrogen in the waste from filtering downstream and percolating through the groundwater. Simmons is chair of Mason County Extension and a water-quality educator. Nitrogen, which makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, is good stuff in appropriate forms and amounts. But where it accumulates in too great a quantity in plant-accessible forms, it causes major problems, such as eutrophication and the resulting low dissolved oxygen.
About half of the students in the North Mason School District will go through the classes taught at the Theler wetlands.
“This class depends on the weather,” says Lippy. “In the winter we do things like build nitrogen-cycle models. We’ll go from this unit into water-quality studies for about three weeks. They’ll learn how to analyze data, how to take data, and become certified in the lab.”
Even though Lippy pointedly keeps politics out of the classroom, still, once her students have finished counting benthic invertebrates as water-quality indicators, they pretty well understand how things work in such an ecosystem. She runs through the phases of environmental education. First thing, she says, you have to have this basic awareness that it’s there. Understanding leads to valuing. And finally, stewardship.
Does that understanding make its way into the community, where knowledge can be converted to action and prevention?
“It’s difficult to measure what students do once they leave school and the effects they have on their families’ practices,” she says. “We suspect it is positive, even if it cannot be measured.”
Regardless, she is undaunted. And a remarkable number of her students have gone on to be scientists.
We’ve left the creek and have moved to the edge of the wetlands near the head of the canal. One of the students has brought Lippy a dragonfly nymph, which she identifies.
“That’s a dragonfly?” says the student. “I thought they were pretty.”
I’m having breakfast at the Little Creek Casino near Shelton with Bob Simmons, Emily Piper, and Duane Fagergren. Like Simmons, Piper is a water-resource educator with Washington State University Extension. Fagergren is the director of special programs for the Puget Sound Action Team, an organization connected to the governor’s office that coordinates research and education activities having to do with the health of Puget Sound. He is also a small-scale shellfish grower.
Fagergren is talking about the relationship between shellfish and water quality. And of Justin Taylor, the patriarch and founder of Taylor Shellfish, the biggest shellfish grower in the state.
“One of [his] theories is that because we have not relied on Hood Canal producing and harvesting wild set oysters, a lot of oysters just stay on the beach and are never harvested out of the system. That’s where you get the benefit of natural filtration.”
“So we take it out of the system and eat it?” I pause briefly over my plate of oysters and eggs. Which, by the way, are very good. Even though I don’t gamble, I’ve enjoyed my stay at the casino, eating oysters every meal so far. But now I can’t help but wonder what they’ve been eating.
Everyone nods, pleased that I’m getting it. They’re not eating oysters, for some reason. But Simmons reassures me: “So it doesn’t turn into nitrogenous waste.” What he means is the non-toxic (to me, the oyster eater) nutrients. (The Department of Health is quite careful about keeping toxic bacteria from reaching my plate.) Generally the way it works is, nutrients flowing into the Hood Canal encourage the growth of phytoplankton, which the shellfish gobble up. What we want to do, I’m realizing, is, if we can’t keep the nutrients from flowing into the canal, then we’re just going to have to take them back out. And one of the best ways to do that is by harvesting shellfish. And that means, I realize virtuously, I need to do my part and eat more shellfish.
Obviously, increased gastronomic possibilities are only a part of the needed solution. Everything involved would be better off if some of that nutrient flow were slowed. In fact, even from the perspective of shellfish, the health of Puget Sound and Hood Canal is a conundrum. Yes, their filtration powers are impressive. Shellfish can remove nearly 17 grams of nitrogen from estuaries for every kilogram of shellfish meat harvested.
But the water has to be sufficiently free of toxicity to support them and other life in the Puget Sound waters. What are you going to do with millions of harvested shellfish if you can’t eat them, store them on the Hanford Reservation?
The effort to remedy the Sound’s afflictions has been taken on by a myriad of organizations, both public and nonprofit. Coordination is kind of organic, says Fagergren. “There’s so much to do, and we know the strengths of each other. As long as somebody doesn’t claim overall leadership, I think we’re far better off.”
Much of that coordination, however, is through the Puget Sound Action Team. Under its broad umbrella are many nonprofit and government groups, including UW Sea Grant, the maritime version of the land-grant system. And of course Extension. Most of the Puget Sound counties have water-resource educators like Simmons and Piper.
“I think it’s great having both major university systems working on the same problem,” says Fagergren, “and doing what each of them does best.”
After breakfast Simmons, Piper, and I head down to Oakland Bay to meet Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish. Oakland Bay is one of Taylor Shellfish’s major growing areas. Other than the hum of machines on the dock, the bay is serene. Across the bay are native Olympia oyster dikes built in the late 1800s. Between us and the dikes is a group of clam diggers, part of Taylor’s crew. The tide is still going out, and not all of the flats are exposed yet.
“This is probably the most productive Manilla clam beach for us anywhere in Puget Sound,” says Dewey. “The flat we’re looking at produces about a million pounds of clams a year. It’s an incredibly productive area.”
Such was not always the case. In fact, not too long ago, Oakland Bay was dead, killed off by the effluent from the pulp mill in Shelton.
“There was nothing,” says Dewey, “no barnacles, no crabs, no marine life out here at all. People used to bring their boats here, store them for the winter to kill the fouling on the bottom of their boats.”
Before the effluent killed it, Oakland Bay was the seed source for much of the shellfish industry in Washington. In an effort to survive the effects of the pulp mill, the industry switched to the hardier Pacific oyster. But finally, everything in this bay died. The mill bought up all the tidelands to mitigate complaints from the oyster industry.
Finally, the mill shut down in 1958. Justin Taylor, in an act of foresight that must have seemed crazed to many, bought the tidelands from Rayonier.
“Gradually,” says Dewey, “the bay has come back.”
The Clean Water Act of 1972 eliminated point sources of pollution in Puget Sound along with the rest of the country.
Now the problems facing Puget Sound are far less defined, if not greater.
Dewey is worried about another area of Oakland Bay.
“Another productive area, around that point, is Chapman’s Cove,” he says. “Sampling results at one of the water quality sampling stations up there since May have been off the chart, really bad.”
If the samples don’t improve, the Department of Health may reclassify the area, says Dewey, which would mean a massive economic hit to Taylor.
As is the case throughout the Puget Sound, the problem with Chapman’s Cove is not specific. “It’s nonpoint pollution,” says Dewey.
Any number of things contribute, including failing septic systems and domestic animals. In the more urban regions, a major problem is stormwater runoff. Roadways and parking lots block rainwater from soaking into the soil, so it washes quickly into the Sound, along with whatever pollutants it picks up on the way.
Shellfish-growing areas are classified in two ways, says Dewey. Every 12 years, inspectors walk the shoreline of the whole growing area and investigate every potential pollution source and test all tributaries coming into the Sound for fecal coliform. Much more frequently, the Department of Health samples the water. Following heavy rainfall, areas can be shut down temporarily. But consistently high levels of fecal coliform can lead to a growing area being reclassified.
“Once an area goes down,” says Dewey, “the best turnaround I’ve seen is four years.”
Nutrient loading of course is also on Dewey’s mind.
“We’ve got oyster beds in a number of inlets in the south Sound that are growing oysters in half the time they did just six years ago. It’s not a miracle of genetics. It’s just so much damn food.
“I hate to kick a gift horse in the mouth,” he jokes.
Miraculous growth is not a good trade.
“What’s happening,” he says, “there’s so much plankton production that’s going unconsumed, when those blooms die, they settle out. This time of year, they smother the beds. Inches of dead algae pile up in a matter of days.
“It’s always been a problem for us. But it’s worse this year. We’ve had huge losses.
“These are not problems we’re going to solve overnight,” says Dewey. “These are lifestyle changes that have to happen for the whole population. We have to go to everyone in Puget Sound watershed and get them to change their lives.”
Now what about that “technology” that Bishop mentioned? As Bob Simmons indicated, one of the weaknesses of conventional septic systems is they don’t sort out the nutrients. New septic technology can boost nitrogen removal, through natural processes, to 80 percent. But these systems are pricey. When a conventional system can cost upwards of $10,000, the homeowner understandably draws the line at just getting the toxic stuff out.
Plus, there are plenty of sources of excess nitrogen other than human sewage. Animal waste, yard waste, garbage. If it finds its way into the Sound, it’s more excess nutrient.
The answer that keeps popping up in conversation wherever I go is the “anaerobic digester.”
There’s nothing new about anaerobic digesters in general. They’re used throughout the developing world to generate methane. At its simplest, an anaerobic digester is a sealed container with a gas valve into which a family can throw its waste, including manure from animals. Bacteria digest the waste, producing methane, which can be tapped as cooking fuel or to produce electricity. When the bacteria are done with their handiwork and the volatile organic compounds have been stabilized, what’s left is a fine residue that can then be used as a soil amendment and liquid fertilizer.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” says Shulin Chen, the WSU engineer who’s been tweaking the technology and consulting with a project in Mason County. “But it’s a good candidate.”
Once its basic virtues sink in, all sorts of possibilities start popping up, particularly along the flood-prone Skokomish River Valley, which empties into Hood Canal. Those possibilities were clear to Governor Gregoire, who budgeted better than half a million dollars for the Mason County Conservation District to build a digester.
Shannon Kirby, an environmental specialist, and Richard Geiger, an engineer with the conservation district, completed a report in December regarding the potential for a community digester in Mason County. One immediately clear use would be to process the thousands of chum salmon carcasses discarded by the Skokomish tribe after they harvested the roe. Until recently, the tribe was simply dumping between 16 and 24 tons of carcasses back into Hood Canal, a natural enough thing. However, that practice was halted once it became clear what a major source of nutrient they were adding to Hood Canal.
The carcasses are currently being composted. Anaerobic digestion will be better, says Chen. Not only will it circumvent the odor associated with composting fish, but it would produce methane for fuel.
The carcass production is seasonal, however, and anaerobic digesters work best with a steady and continuous flow of feedstock, just one of the kinks that Chen and Geiger are working on.
Another source of feedstock for the digester is the 1,060 cattle and horses, 500 poultry, 32 goats, eight llamas, and five pigs that live in the Skokomish Valley. That’s not a huge livestock population, but still it means some pretty serious poop, at least if it washes down river into the Canal. It could mean some serious methane if it were gathered and digested. Kirby and Geiger envision gathering that resource as well as, possibly, digesting it, selling the remains as fertilizer, converting the methane to electricity or sellable gas, and everybody’s happy.
At least if those byproducts result in sufficient income to pay for the digester, beyond the governor’s subsidy.
And there’s one of Chen’s primary goals. “We can get a system working, no problem,” he says. “Our challenge is, how can we reduce the cost?”
Once that cost is lowered, the digesters will be more attractive to individual farmers, such as Judy and Darryl Vander Haak of Whatcom County, who believed enough in the technology to build a digester on their farm. Their 1,500 dairy cows produce enough manure to generate electricity to power 180 homes.
So far, theirs is the only digester operating in Washington. But that should change soon. Chen is testing a digester on the WSU dairy farm, and Mason County is planning to go ahead with its digester this summer.
Now—if everyone around the Sound will take Bill Dewey’s advice and change their lives, the future of the Sound ecosystem looks downright rosy.
Light on the water — Photographer Kevin Nibur ’05 trains his camera on the many moods of Hood Canal.
Washington water resources
Where to get started if you want to do more than eat shellfish
to save Puget Sound: