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Toward a clean and healthy Puget Sound: community shellfish farming fosters a local connection to our marine environment

Bounding forth onto the tideland rain or shine, hipboot toting, the hardy volunteer community shellfish farmers are working and slurping oysters at Olympia’s own Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm (HICSF). With wide smiles the crew is surrounded by the abundant beauty of the Salish Sea tromping amongst bands of bivalves, with seabirds singing overhead. Some of the enticements and pleasures of Community Shellfish Farming is the first hand experience of working with your neighbors in the world of the marine intertidal, knowing that your efforts are supporting water quality, making that oyster taste ever more sweet.

Locally in Olympia, many people have heard about or have become involved with community gardens, urban agriculture, and community farming. In the most recent years the awareness has grown alongside the development of the local food movement, but what is a Community Shellfish Farm? It is the idea of creating public access to marine resources for the sake of local food production, community and our environment; this access can be utilized to educate, restore, and celebrate efforts around water quality and the marine environment.

Here in Washington, we are fortunate to live next to Puget Sound the nation’s second largest estuary. This special place is not only beautiful but magnificently productive with the potential to support a large complex ecosystem as well as a buffet of world class seafood.   Alongside the productivity is the building ecological pressure that our increasing population is putting on these invaluable marine resources.

Non-Profit Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) was founded in 1997 with the mission to restore marine habitat, water quality, and native species in Puget Sound through tangible, on-the-ground projects. Much of their work consists of projects directed at restoring native species such as the Olympia Oyster, Pinto Abalone and Bull Kelp. PSRF developed the Community Shellfish Farm (CSF) model to address water quality issues in areas where bacterial contamination and resulting downgrades in shellfish growing areas threaten access to resources that depend on clean water.

PSRF’s Community Shellfish Farms Drayton Harbor*(Blaine, WA), Port Madison (Bainbridge Island, WA), and Henderson Inlet (Olympia, WA) have joined other organizations and agencies with a common vision of a clean and healthy sound that is productive, full of life and capable of sustaining us. CSFs work with watershed communities to help restore and maintain healthy shellfish growing areas, spur cleanup efforts, and maintain community access to shellfish resources. By maintaining community access, PSRF fosters stewardship of the marine environment. When bacterial contamination threatens the ability to harvest, residents are motivated to change practices on their own property and support local pollution control efforts to regain something that’s personally important to them. Harvesting local seafood on the beach influences people to want to protect and preserve the marine environment, which leads to a long-term commitment to the health of Puget Sound.

Here in Olympia, south sound residents are fortunate to be close to the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm located in southern Henderson Inlet. Volunteers, students, educators and community members can experience first hand the bounty of high quality shellfish harvested from clean water. They also learn about the struggle for water quality, growing oysters and the surrounding marine ecosystem.   This currently safe access culminated out of a massive amount of work done by a plethora of partners within the watershed.

Prior to this work, in 2001 the health of the inlet was not looking good.   Commercial shellfish harvest was almost brought to a complete halt, long time historical growers such as Jerry Yamashita were at the front lines of this battle for water quality, desperately trying to stop the downgrades and began to reach out to the community for help.

The source of the pollution forcing the closures, in this case, was not what most people have in mind when they think of pollution. No big smokestacks or warehouses, no black ooze draining from pipes, no point source. It was our own individual collective impact within our watershed that accumulates fecal waste, creating bacterial contamination through failing septic systems, pet waste, and stormwater management intensifying these non-point nutrient pollution that poisons our shellfish beds in Henderson Inlet.

It was at this time in 2001 that PSRF partnered with the Pacific Coast Growers Association and WSU to create the HICSF in conjunction with the formation of the Shellfish Protection District (SPD) within the Henderson/Nisqually Reach watersheds. HICSF became a stakeholder within the SPD, working with partners to create context and to educate community members around the necessary work to be done to improve water quality in the inlet and stop the flow of nutrient pollution. The SPD, stakeholders, and partners worked diligently with homeowners to inspect and maintain septic systems, create farm plans with agricultural businesses to manage fecal waste, and the creation of stormwater treatment plants in the city of Lacey and Olympia. Along with this they have worked to slow down nutrient inputs during heavy rainfall, implemented constant water quality testing, orchestrated a county wide pet waste campaign, and promoted many other efforts around education for students and community members to create awareness and stimulate action.

It was almost ten years later, in 2010, that these efforts finally began to pay off for the oysters and residents of Henderson Inlet. Between 2010 and 2012, 340 acres of the shellfish growing area were upgraded by the Department of Health as determined by the frequent testing throughout water stations in the inlet. Growing areas such as the HICSF’s status changed from conditional to approved allowing for safe harvest most of the year!

Now more than ever, with water quality presently trending toward a decrease in bacterial contamination,efforts are needed to continue this positive momentum as well as celebrate the successes in the watershed. Outreach goals with HICSF have been brought to the adjacent Nisqually Reach working with partners National Fish and Oyster and South Sound Green to bring the education and connection to residents and students of that watershed. Another way HICSF tries to bring attention to the present issues and say thank you for the work that has been accomplished is operate an Oyster-Give-Away Program. This program rewards residents of the combined Henderson and Nisqually Reach watersheds with a dozen free oysters for those who successfully complete the Operation and Maintenance of their septic systems required within the SPD. This year HICSF is currently expanding the Give-a-way program to those who have taken action volunteering towards water quality, create farm plans on their property, or other pledges people make to Puget Sound. Oyster Give-A-Way dozens can be picked up at farm events or the HICSF Farm Stand located in East Olympia at George and Son’s Fruit Market @ 427 Lilly RD, Olympia, WA.

Currently HICSF operates year round hosting monthly work parties, volunteer opportunities, and educational tours. These events allow for people to visit the farm and participate in a hands-on oyster farming experience, learning about oyster aquaculture and upland connections to water quality while also supplying that gut connection to Puget Sound through oyster BBQs and slurping some on the half-shell. HICSF can also be found in the community shucking oysters or serving oyster pickle sandwiches at events such as the PCSGA’s SLURP, SSEA Turn of the Tides Festival in Olympia, Elliot’s Oyster House’s Oyster New Year in Seattle, and others. You can find Henderson Pacific Oysters on the half-shell at the Dockside Bistro in Olympia, the HICSF Farm Stand, and events throughout Puget Sound.

Population growth is not expected to slow down; our community needs to keep in mind how to manage our growth, to be stewards of our marine environment.Our actions will impact the water quality downstream and ultimately our access to these marine resources for now and for generations to come.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” —John Muir

Derek King grew up on Orcas Island where his connection to the Salish Sea began. Currently based in Olympia, Derek graduated from the Evergreen State College with a dual BS/BA in Marine Science and Environmental Journalism in 2014, and is a Program Technician with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. There he manages the day-to-day operations at the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm and coordinates and assists in other native species and water quality projects.

For more information on the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm, volunteer opportunities, and Oyster-Give-Away Program, go to

* With the role of PSRF accomplished Drayton Harbor CSF has since become its own commercial entity in 2014 as the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company.


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