Our treaty right to gather shellfish depends on the shellfish being safe to eat.
Samish Bay is one of the traditional shellfish gathering areas for the Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes. It has some of the highest levels of fecal coliform in the state.
Fecal coliform is bacteria that’s found in the poop of warm-blooded animals. It ends up in the water when septic systems fail or when farm animals and manure aren’t kept far enough away from streams. The problem gets worse when heavy rains wash even more pollution into the bay. Already this year, Samish Bay has been closed to shellfish harvesting for 38 days.
We have asked the federal government time and again to take action against those who pollute our waterways and contaminate our shellfish. Our treaty shellfish harvest rights are threatened because the state and federal governments are failing to hold landowners responsible to keep fecal coliform and other pollutants out of our bays.
While tribal requests for help have been ignored by the federal government, others have gotten a response. When non-Indian commercial shellfish growers cried for relief from fecal coliform pollution in Samish Bay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responded. EPA gave Skagit County about $1 million to find and fix pollution problems. In May, the Puget Sound Partnership unveiled plans to conduct more inspections of septic tanks and farms.
I hope these efforts work. The state Department of Ecology has had its Clean Samish Initiative in place since 2009, but Gov. Chris Gregoire called the initiative a “failure” when the state was forced to downgrade another 4,000 acres of shellfish beds last spring.
"We're not going to flush, literally flush 4,000 acres down the drain of prime shellfish growing area in the state," Gov. Gregoire told state natural resources managers. Then she gave them until next September to make a difference. I applaud the governor for drawing a line in the sand at Samish Bay.
While I am encouraged by the governor’s action, I am discouraged at the failure of this initiative. It shows that we can’t always count on people to do the right thing. We can’t expect people to voluntarily correct the pollution problems that have been going on for years. Not when our treaty rights are at stake.
The whole time the Samish Initiative was trying to monitor water quality and educate landowners, a local farmer was letting his cows drink from the Samish River. Keeping cows out of the river is one of the most basic pollution control steps we can take, but even that simple step wasn’t being taken.
The Puget Sound Partnership has come up with a plan to reopen the shellfish beds in Samish Bay by September 2012. It calls for increased inspections, more education, and assistance to farmers and landowners.
I want to believe that this time they will make a difference, but it sounds an awful lot like more of the same to me. I think it’s time to get some management practices in place that will actually work to protect water quality and shellfish in Samish Bay, as well as our treaty rights.
Those rights don’t exist without the ability to harvest shellfish. For decades we were kept off the beaches because the state refused to recognize the rights we reserved with the federal government in treaty. Now, the state’s failure to clean up Samish Bay is doing the same thing.
Billy Frank, Jr., is Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.