The State Department of Health recently opened 104 acres on the west and north sides of Vaughn Bay to commercial shellfish harvesting.
The bay has been closed to harvesting since the mid-1970s due to health concerns from water pollution. The DOH upgrade specifically targets commercial shellfish operations but provides valuable water quality assurance for recreational harvesters as well. The Washington state shellfish industry is valued at $110 million, $50 million of which is generated in south Puget Sound.
“It’s extremely satisfying that we are getting such positive results,” said Dan Wrye, Pierce County Surface Water Management program manager. “Meeting the high water quality standards necessary to safely eat shellfish benefits the entire ecosystem and supports a healthy, sustainable community and economy.”
Wrye represents South Puget Sound on the Puget Sound Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board. He has recommended to the Partnership and the Department of Ecology that they fund expansion of the Shellfish Partners program and work to prevent shellfish bed closures elsewhere in south Puget Sound.
Vaughn Bay is located in south Puget Sound on the Key Peninsula, about 20 miles west of Tacoma. Previous samples of runoff and direct discharge from the heavily developed shoreline contained high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which is often accompanied by other bacteria and viruses harmful to human health. The bacteria come primarily from malfunctioning septic systems and poorly managed domestic animal waste and wildlife.
The bay’s water quality did not improve without help. Between 2001 and 2003, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department conducted sampling and corrected one failing septic system on Vaughn Bay using Department of Ecology Centennial grant funds. Earlier this year, the Pierce County Shellfish Partners program began administering a new Ecology-funded grant/loan program for more septic system repairs, and the Pierce Conservation District has a dedicated farm planner for the area to help livestock owners implement best management practices.
“The success in Vaughn Bay demonstrates that ongoing programs do protect and improve water quality,” said Steve Marek, TPCHD Public Health manager. “We hope to see continued improvement as time goes on.” Eastern portions of Vaughn Bay will remain closed to shellfish harvesting until sources of contamination are corrected.
Shellfish Partners is a coalition of local government agencies and others that work together to improve water quality along Pierce County marine shorelines.