The $2 million gamble appears to be paying off.
The 122 acres of tidelands has had two water-quality upgrades from the state Department of Health in the past two years, expanding the tribe’s ability to put its only commercial shellfish-growing ground to work.
At the time the tribe agreed to buy the farm in 2009 – the deal closed in March 2010 – some 50 acres of the farm were off-limits to harvesting shellfish because of fecal coliform levels in the water. An additional 72 acres faced closures whenever it rained one inch in 24 hours.
Flash forward to the summer of 2012 and only 5 acres are labeled prohibited. Forty-four other acres face the rainfall restrictions, but the majority of tidelands – 72 acres – is fully approved.
Behind the numbers rests a story of opportunity for the tribe and accomplishment by local governments, homeowners, farmers and others who have invested millions of dollars to curb stormwater pollution, fix failing septic tanks and manage livestock and pet waste — all sources of pollution in a watershed experiencing rapid population growth.
Many didn’t think it could be done. But don’t count Nisqually tribal councilman Junior Slape in that group. He lobbied his tribal council to consummate the sale with Yamashita, who, in his late 80s, no longer had the energy or inclination to keep the farm operating in the face of all the pollution battles he’d waged for decades.
“A few of the tribal elders thought I had lost my mind,” Slape, 36, told me the other day during a visit to the shellfish farm at the south end of the inlet that drains a watershed that includes much of Lacey and east Olympia.
To make his case, Slape harked back to the tribe’s 1995 vision statement, which called on the tribe to regain some commercial shellfish-growing ground. The tribe’s best shellfish tidelands north of the Nisqually Delta were lost in the early 1900s when the U.S. government condemned much of the tribe’s historic lands to build what was then called Camp Lewis. The tribe’s farm is situated in the Squaxin Island Tribe’s usual and accustomed places.
Yamashita is no stranger to the kind of adversity the tribe has faced over the years. His family was uprooted from its Samish Bay shellfish farm during World War II and sent to the Tule Lake internment camp in Northern California until 1945.
Yamashita returned to the life of a commercial shellfish grower. Repeatedly, he has seen the tidelands in which he has worked tirelessly to grow oysters and clams in Burley Lagoon, Dabob Bay and Henderson Inlet shut down by pollution.
The tribe and this gentle Japanese-American share a special bond. Just this spring, the tribe christened its new work boat for the shellfish farm “Eiichi,” which means “firstborn son” in Japanese. It happens to be Yamashita’s birth name.
With more of the tidelands now available for growing oysters and clams, the work boat will be busier than planned, noted Sue Shotwell, the tribe’s shellfish farm manager and a veteran of the commercial shellfish industry.
“I have to redo my bivalve-management plan for the farm,” she said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The tribe planted about 100,000 oyster seed this year and they’re growing at an unusually rapid pace, thanks to an abundance of food – single-celled algae pushed over the shallow tidelands with the tides. Some of the property also features gravelly beaches near the shoreline that are good manila clam habitat.
“The only thing really holding us back is the availability of oyster seed,” Shotwell said, noting that ocean acidification is playing havoc with oyster larvae survival in hatchery and natural settings in the Pacific Northwest.
Everyone associated with the farm knows the improved water quality could disappear in a heartbeat without good stewardship of land in the watershed as the population continues to grow. Puget Sound is riddled with bays and inlets where water quality improved, only to slip back into unhealthy shape.
Helping to keep that from happening is the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm, which the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund operates next door to the tribal farm. One of the first things the tribe did was provide the community farm a much-needed acre of tideland.
“We were operating on only one-quarter of an acre,” said restoration fund shellfish biologist Brian Allen. “Now we can scale up production from a few hundred dozen oysters per year to a few thousand dozen a year.”
Slape looks forward to the day when the tribe’s farm is cranking out shellfish for tribal members, restaurants at the tribe’s Red Wind Casino and other outlets. Also in the tribal plans is a live seafood market open to the public in the Nisqually Valley.
“We’re restoring the farm, improving water quality, creating jobs and providing local food,” Shotwell said. “But we have to have good water quality to survive.”