The upgrade of several parts of Oakland Bay two years ago by the state Department of Health was the result of a concerted effort of the Squaxin Island Tribe, shellfish companies, local governments and concerned citizens to find and shut off pollution sources. Since a harvest shutdown in 2006, the water is cleaner in the vital shellfish bay.
With help from the Mason Conservation District, several farms along the edges of the bay dedicated themselves to new practices. Mason County also stepped up to identify failing septic systems.
The tribe joined shellfish growers, and local and state government in the Sa-Heh-Wa-Mish Stewardship Initiative to restore shellfish harvesting to Oakland Bay. The initiative was funded by a grant from the EPA West Coast Estuaries Initiative to the Squaxin Island Tribe and involves many partners to maximize resources for the community.
The tribe and the county are also joining together in a new partnership to keep tabs on these fixes and find any new pollution sources.
Shellfish harvesting is a huge part of the Mason County economy. Hundreds of jobs in the local community depend on clean water. “Mortgages are paid and money gets put away for college because the water here is clean enough to harvest shellfish,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the tribe.
Shellfish also play a large role in the tribe’s economy as well. Twenty percent of Squaxin tribal members actively harvest shellfish commercially. “Tribal members always have depended on shellfish as a source of nutrition, for income and as a way of life,” Whitener said. “Our treaty right to harvest shellfish depends on healthy shellfish, so we need to track down and solve this pollution problem.”
Shellfish harvest is still restricted in a part of the upper bay during the summer. The reason is not as clear as in the middle portion. Instead of winter rains simply washing too much pollution from the uplands onto beaches, bacterial pollutants seem to linger for weeks on inter-tidal sediments in the summer.
The tribe and its partners have been researching this phenomenon for years and have not yet found a clear solution. The tribe built two replicas of Oakland Bay to isolate the conditions that are causing fecal bacteria to spike. They also conducted a survey of birds in the bay, to explore a connection between their waste and pollution.