Tribes are steadfast about their treaty shellfish harvest rights. If we weren’t, our livelihoods and cultures would disappear. In Mystery Bay, off Marrowstone Island, several tribes are working hard to make sure their shellfish harvesting rights aren’t hurt by pollution that could be prevented.
The state Department of Health has been monitoring the number of boats in the bay, some of them moored year round. During boating season, you can see 50 to 75 boats in the 100-acre bay. That’s too many. While water quality tests show that the water is clean for the time being, there is a real possibility that it could change – fast.
Already the number of boats has resulted in a partial closure of the bay and a downgrading of the approved shellfish growing area under requirements of the National Shellfish Sanitation Program. The NSSP regulates all aspects of commercial shellfish harvesting and handling, and prevents contaminated shellfish getting into the market. Treaty tribes in western Washington are bound by the NSSP, as are other commercial shellfish growers and harvesters. The guidelines state that every boat has the potential to discharge untreated sewage; and that the time it takes to reach a shellfish bed can be very short.
The Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish tribes would all feel a deep impact by the loss of Mystery Bay to shellfish harvest. Like all treaty tribes in western Washington, these tribes won’t accept a loss of their right to harvest shellfish from a pollution problem that can be easily fixed.
The Mystery Bay issue could set a precedent for shorelines throughout Puget Sound, causing shellfish closures for everyone and ultimately threatening the loss of tribal treaty harvest opportunities.
The threat of shellfish closures reaches beyond tribal communities. Our good friends, the Johnson family, owners of Marrowstone Island Shellfish Company, live and work on that bay too. Their business would be devastated by possible closures.
We can avoid the closure of Mystery Bay. The lack of enforcement and management of the area is long overdue and is reaching the breaking point. Permitting agencies have been meeting for more than a year on this issue and have discussed the need to hammer out exactly what is needed in terms of permits, authorizing statutes and regulations.
We need to start by limiting the number of boats allowed to moor in the bay. Close monitoring is needed to ensure beaches remain safe for shellfish harvesting as we reduce the number of boats.
Shellfish are wonderful critters. They help keep the water clean through their natural filtering systems. They have always provided Indian people with a sustainable source of food and opportunities to keep our culture alive.
Now is the time for the federal, state and county governments to step up and protect Mystery Bay, treaty rights, water quality and public health. We all benefit from the beauty and resources of a healthy Mystery Bay, and that puts us one step closer to a cleaner Puget Sound.
Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.