How the Squaxin Island Tribe is boosting shellfish populations

Doyle Foster, a shellfish technician with the Squaxin Island Tribe, bags clam seed from the tribe's FLUPSY.

Doyle Foster, a shellfish technician with the Squaxin Island Tribe, bags clam seed from the tribe’s FLUPSY.

The Squaxin Island Tribe recently constructed a floating upwelling system (FLUPSY) to help maintain a growing shellfish enhancement program.

“This gives us much more flexibility in our shellfish growing operation,” said Eric Sparkman, the tribe’s shellfish management biologist. “By buying seed, raising and holding it until we’re ready to plant, we are much more efficient.”

The tribe’s natural resources department and shellfish enterprise together constructed the FLUPSY, a type of clam and oyster nursery situated in a boat house along the Shelton waterfront. The unit holds 32 bins for clam and oyster seed. A constant flow of water is forced through the bins, providing nutrient-rich water to promote growth.

After being raised in the FLUPSY for a few weeks, the seeds will be spread on beaches throughout South Sound and allowed to grow until they reach harvestable size.

Over the last year, the Squaxin Island Tribe has expanded its shellfish enhancement efforts, planting nearly 17 million clams throughout deep South Sound. This is a significant increase over the past six years, when the tribe seeded an average of fewer than 6 million clams annually.

“Planting beaches is the best way to make the most of the tribe’s tidelands and to carry on its shellfish-centered economy,” Sparkman said. “In a few years, these tiny clams will grow into a commercially viable and ecologically sound product.”

In the last century the tribe has lost access to shellfish populations due to privatization of the Puget Sound tidelands, development and pollution.

Removing a piece of the FLUPSY to get at the baby clams.

Removing a piece of the FLUPSY to get at the baby clams.

“We’ve seen a huge reduction in harvestable populations of shellfish, and the main factor is the loss of access to tidelands,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the tribe.

“The best shellfishing areas were sold to private shellfish growers decades ago. This made them off limits to the tribe or very complicated for our harvesters to access them,” Whitener added. “So, we’re making the most of the tidelands we have access to by enhancing the natural populations already there.”

More than 30 percent of the nearly 1,100 Squaxin Island tribal members are active shellfish harvesters. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to get out on the beach and dig clams, just some time and a fork,” Whitener said.

Taking clam seed out of the FLUPSY

Taking clam seed out of the FLUPSY

Deep South Sound is the center of the state’s commercial shellfish industry. Over $10 million of shellfish is harvested in the region every year, including over 3 million pounds of clams and 1.8 million oysters.

“We’ve been harvesting shellfish forever. We have always counted on shellfish as a source of food and trade. We will do everything we can to protect the health of the shellfish resource and our treaty-protected right to harvest.”

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