The future just turned brighter for the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm with the lifting of harvest restrictions at the farm.
Water quality has improved enough in lower Henderson Inlet north of Lacey to allow unfettered harvesting of shellfish on 240 acres of tidelands that had been restricted since 2001, the state Department of Health announced Wednesday.
It means the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund can expand its offering of Henderson Inlet oysters to the public from the one acre of tidelands it farms.
The shellfish farm operates on tidelands leased from Washington State University. The farm was formed in 2003 to raise awareness about pollution problems that threatened shellfish harvesting in the inlet.
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“Shellfish have been such an important part of this place for so long, and here it was, slipping through our fingers,” recalled Betsy Peabody, executive director of the restoration fund.
The nonprofit group deserves some credit for turning back the tide of pollution in Henderson Inlet, said Tom Terry, a waterfront resident across the inlet from the farm.
“They got the community involved,” he said.
However, he said, the battle against pollution sources such as stormwater runoff, animal waste and failing on-site septic systems will never end.
“The biggest thing I worry about is we could lose our momentum,” he said. “Reopening the tidelands to harvest isn’t the success; success is if we keep them open.”
Terry and other volunteers largely responsible for oyster seeding and harvesting at the farm wasted no time taking advantage of the green light from health officials. On Wednesday, they plucked 40 dozen Pacific oysters from the muddy tidelands, sending half to the Elliot’s Oyster House raw oyster bar in Seattle and half to Olympia Seafood Co., a retail seafood store in downtown Olympia.
In addition, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund will start selling “oyster shares” at the farm in October. Consumers can sign up to make weekly purchases of small or medium-sized Pacific oysters, available for pickup at Olympia Seafood through the harvest season, which will run through April 14.
The program is patterned after community-supported agriculture shares that consumers buy from farmers during the vegetable-growing season and is the first of its kind in Puget Sound, Peabody said.
“This is a big step up for us,” Peabody said of the planned weekly deliveries and selling of oyster shares.
All the proceeds from the sale of oysters – set at $6 per dozen at Olympia Seafood and $8 per dozen for the oyster shares – will help fund farm operations and reduce reliance on funding from Thurston County, said Brian Allen, a restoration fund employee, shellfish biologist and grower.
The Henderson Inlet oysters, which have a salty, crisp flavor, have proved popular with customers, said Olympia Seafood owners Kira and Tony DeRito, who turn all the oyster sales proceeds back to the farm.
“Olympia is a good place to do something like this,” Kira DeRito said. “The oysters and connection to clean water have had a positive reception for sure.”
Other activities at the farm include:
• 10 tideflat tours each year attended by 300 to 500 students, parents and teachers.
• Work with 50 to 100 volunteers who seed, thin and harvest the oysters, prepare shellfish starter kits for waterfront residents to grow oysters and serve community-grown shellfish at South Sound events.
• Sponsoring oyster giveaways to homeowners in the Henderson Inlet watershed who take action to manage their on-site septic systems.
The farm is at the southern end of the newly approved shellfish-growing area. Previously, harvesting was suspended for five days after heavy rains.
Just south of the farm, bacterial levels still are too high to harvest shellfish.
“Holding on to this will be tricky,” Peabody conceded. “But we’re showing that we really can succeed in a heavily urbanizing place like Henderson Inlet.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444