WSU allows shellfish farm on Henderson Inlet to stay

jdodge@theolympian.comSeptember 7, 2013 

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A Puget Sound Restoration Fund volunteer carries a harvested bag of Pacific Oysters to the shoreline at the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm. (The Olympian file)

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian Buy Photo

What a difference a day makes.

On Thursday, friends and organizers of the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm gathered in Olympia to ponder the farm’s future, threatened by Washington State University’s recent decision to terminate their access to the Meyer’s Point property owned by WSU and used by the farm the past 10 years.

They planned to appeal the university’s decision, search for other ways to access 1 acre of tidelands they lease from the Nisqually Indian Tribe, and possibly move to or expand operations in the Nisqually Reach.

On Friday, those same folks were in a celebratory mood, after being notified that morning that officials in the president’s office at WSU had agreed to extend their free public access to the property indefinitely.

“Our decision today is to renew the lease,” Melvin Taylor, executive director of the university’s real estate office, said Friday. “We think it’s a great use for the property, fulfilling the wishes of Dr. Meyer’s gift.”

Dr. Edward Meyer, a family doctor and former WSU student, had bequested the stunning, 94.5-acre parcel with 1,650 feet of lower Henderson Inlet waterfront to WSU upon his death 20 years ago. The physician’s wish was for the property to be preserved in its natural state, and used for environmental education.

It’s still not clear why the lease was terminated. Taylor said the university called timeout on public use to re-evaluate the property. WSU officials and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund weren’t at cross purposes.

“I totally respect that it’s their property,” restoration fund executive director Betsy Peabody said prior to the lease renewal. Nevertheless, nobody associated with the shellfish farm wanted to pull up stakes.

“It’s been a focal point for improving water quality in lower Henderson Inlet,” farm neighbor Tom Terry said. “Having shellfish activity there has made the pollution problems, and solutions, more real.”

For the past 10 years, the community shellfish farm has been a champion of improved water quality, oyster-growing and marine environmental education programs for hundreds of area youths.

When the farm started, much of lower Henderson Inlet was off-limits to shellfish harvest, or faced restrictions whenever it rained, flushing pollutants into the bay. The culprit? Fecal coliform bacteria from animal waste, stormwater runoff and failing, on-site septic systems.

The restoration fund picked lower Henderson Inlet for a site of its community farm, not despite the pollution problems, but because of them. The thinking works like this: Shed light on pollution, work on solutions and, if things go right, celebrate those successes with tasty oysters.

Today, water quality is much improved, thanks to improved stormwater treatment in Lacey, more vigilant maintenance and operation of septic systems that Thurston County requires of residents in the watershed and better control of animal waste.

For its part, the community farm has doled out free oysters to nearby homeowners who better manage their septic systems; offered tideland tours to hundreds of students, teachers and parents; introduced dozens of volunteers to the tasks of planting, thinning and harvesting oysters; and provided oyster-growing starter kits to neighbors on the waterfront.

Together, all the efforts of many allowed the state Department of Health in 2010 to reopen 240 acres of lower Henderson Inlet tidelands to unfettered shellfish harvest, an area that was declared unsuitable for harvest in 2001.

Some might say, the community shellfish farm has served its purpose. Why not just declare victory and move on?

Well, history shows that restored shellfish growing ground can succumb to the relentless press of pollution from population growth and development, and to lapses in the very behaviors that protect water quality.

“We need to maintain a presence in Henderson Inlet,” Peabody said.

It looks like that’s a done deal with WSU’s Friday announcement. The farm can keep educating the public about good stewardship of the tidelands, and growing oysters, too.

The shellfish farm is not a big producer in the grand scheme of things – about 3,400 dozen oysters per year. But the Henderson Inlet oysters are popular at several area restaurants. One of the most loyal customers is Elliott’s Oyster House in Seattle.

“The Henderson Inlet oyster is one of the customer favorites in the oyster bar,” Elliott’s Carly George noted.

On Thursday, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund was scrambling to survive in South Sound. But out of that brainstorming session surfaced an idea to expand community farm activities.

Matthew Bulldis, co-owner and president of National Fish & Oyster Co., was at the session. He suggested that the Puget Sound Restoration Fund would be welcome at his shellfish farm in the Nisqually Reach next to the Nisqually Reach Nature Center and the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

“I like the idea of an environmental outreach program on a small chunk of our growing ground,” Bulldis said. “It makes sense – we all share the same goal of improved water quality.”

The Nisqually Reach also happens to be Thurston County’s next targeted area for its shellfish protection district programs.

So a crisis is averted and a new opportunity surfaces. I like the way that feels.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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