Shellfish company tackles weeds (Shellfish company tackles weeds) – High Country News – Know the West


The light of the The October full moon bounced off the surface of Similk Bay in Washington. Stuart Thomas stood ankle-deep in the ebb tide, turning over black mesh bags full of oysters.

He opened a bag and pulled out a handful of little ones, barely an inch in diameter, quickly flaking them in the light of his headlamp. “These are oysters from Olympia,” said Thomas, happily despite the midnight hour. The only oysters native to the state, they are finally making a comeback after being virtually threatened with extinction more than a century ago due to overexploitation, habitat destruction and a commercial preference for them. introduced species, such as the Pacific oyster.

The flesh inside the Olympia’s shell is only about the size of a quarter. It tastes pungent, brackish, and slightly stony, older, in a way, than the sweet, creamy Pacific oysters that are the mainstay of Washington’s farmed shellfish industry.

A self-proclaimed genetics nerd, Thomas is tasked with reviving the Olympia oyster for the Swinomish Shellfish Company. The Englishman had spent years working in the commercial shellfish industry in Washington before joining the company, which is owned by the Swinomish Indian tribal community. Now it operates under a different set of rules, with one main directive: do not disturb the eelgrass beds.

Stuart Thomas, manager of the Swinomish Shellfish Company, harvests oysters on Similk Beach during low tide in October.

“It was made clear to me from the start that anything we had to do had to be environmental protection,” Thomas said.

Within 40 feet of it, the eelgrass lay flat and motionless on the surface of the water. Its immobility belied the importance it has for the marine ecosystem of this part of the world. Grasses serve as nurseries, feeding grounds and resting places for a dizzying number of species along the food chain, from killer whales to zooplankton, including virtually every marine food used by indigenous communities.

But the plant also grows in or near many of the same places as seashells, and conservation measures to protect it have failed, according to a lawsuit that Swinomish filed against the federal government in 2018. Food Security, Now and in the World future, should not be sacrificed for economic gain, argues the tribe; the two can coexist. The Swinomish Shellfish Company is determined to prove that other vital species can thrive alongside an industry that brings in $ 150 million a year for the state.

“It was made clear to me from the start that anything we had to do had to be environmental protection.”

Stuart Thomas shows a hollow oyster. On the right, eelgrass at low tide.

THE BAY OF PADILLA, WHICH BORDERS the northern edge of the Swinomish Nation is home to the largest contiguous bed of eelgrass in the Lower 48. At very low tide, tufts of eelgrass swarm and glow in the mud. One of the only family of plants to flower completely underwater, eelgrass is essential to the ecological functioning of Puget Sound; its abundance is considered a key indicator of the health of the estuary.

At high tide, if you dip your head in a bed of eelgrass, you’ll see tiny gas bubbles clinging to the thin, almost translucent green strands. These bubbles are formed by the plant when it inhales CO2 from the water column and exhales oxygen. Studies have shown that eelgrass beds can help alleviate ocean acidification as the water warms – a growing problem for marine animals and the industries that depend on them, especially the shellfish industry.

The importance of the plant goes beyond climate change, however.

“Native eelgrass is a fundamental part of the marine ecosystem. It provides important cover and feeding areas for juvenile salmon, as well as other marine species, such as Dungeness Crab, ”wrote Tino Villaluz, Wildlife Program Manager for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Registered Member. High Country News in an email. “Aquaculture activities that decrease or destroy native eelgrass also remove critical habitat for salmon. “

Walter Clark (Warm Springs, left) and Kalvin Jimmie (Nooksack) are employees of the Swinomish Shellfish Company.

The fight to protect eelgrass is just one part of the larger struggle of the Swinomish Indian tribal community to protect the habitat that supports many of the foods on which they depend for their physical and cultural livelihoods. Over the past decades, the Swinomish have led the charge of protecting habitat for salmon and other species, developing science-based plans to manage populations, restoring swamps and canals, and reforesting streams to keep them alive. cool waters.

The tribe, like many Coast Salish tribal nations, identifies with the Salmon people. But overfishing, habitat loss, dams and climate change have decimated salmon stocks in the Strait, straining the tribe’s economic and cultural lifeline and diminishing the well-being of members of the tribe. tribe, said Villaluz. In 2016, the tribe developed its own set of Indigenous health indicators to better understand the non-physiological components of community health. Access to “first foods”, such as salmon and shellfish, has been identified as essential to the health and well-being of tribal members, especially in a rapidly changing world.

Then, in 2017, a change in federal policy opened up much of the Washington coast to commercial shellfish farming. Fearing that thousands of hectares of mature eelgrass – and the species that depend on it – might be lost, the tribe took the matter to court.

Access to “first foods”, such as salmon and shellfish, has been identified as essential to the health and well-being of tribal members, especially in a rapidly changing world.

Jimmie and Clark clean and sort the oysters at the Swinomish Shellfish Company sorting center.

SINCE 2007, THE BREEDING OF SHELLS operated as part of a large national licensing system overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers. In 2017, despite objections from the Swinomish and environmental groups, the Corps adjusted its rules: now, he said, any place where shellfish farming had taken place in the past 100 years could be considered a continuous operation. and therefore exempt from more stringent eelgrass protection. measures. In North Puget Sound alone, this would have included over 2,000 acres with mature eelgrass beds.

The Swinomish have sued both the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing that their ability to fish salmon and harvest shellfish in traditional waters required a healthy ecosystem rooted in eelgrass, and that the creation of such generalized exemptions would put eelgrass at risk. They won against the Army Corps, forcing it to switch from large national licenses for shellfish farms to individual licenses.

But despite the victory, the army corps clearance system can still cause far too much damage to eelgrass beds, said Amy van Saun, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety, who also filed a complaint against the changes to the seagrass. ‘authorization and sues the army. Body again on industrial shellfish mining permits. The Swinomish are still disputing the federal government over how much eelgrass in North Puget Sound can be damaged by shellfish aquaculture. Meanwhile, they are trying to get better protection for eelgrass in the Skagit County Coastal Management Plan.

The objective has never been to stop shellfish farming, simply to ensure that it does not come at the expense of the ecosystem. In the same year that the tribe sued the Corps, they also opened their own shellfish farming operation, determined to prove that coexistence is possible. The Swinomish Shellfish Company’s 55-acre farm was a private oyster farm in the 1930s, but the tribe licensed the farm as a new operation, with much more stringent protections that new operations demand.

Laura Wilbur (Swinomish), whose grandfather helped build the salmon processing facility where the Swinomish Shellfish Company is located, now works for the company.

THE OFFICES OF THE COMPANY OCCUPY a former salmon processing facility, just across the Skagit River from the picturesque town of La Conner. White boxes printed with red and black images of jumping salmon from the former Swinomish salmon company, Native Catch, still line the hallways. The retired salmon preserving machines, which Thomas compares to giant pressure cookers, are empty. Native Catch closed in 2016 after decades of declining salmon stocks. Many fishermen and women redeveloped their boats for crab and shrimp, and salmon went from a daily staple to something that was stored in a common refrigerator and reserved for special occasions like weddings, funerals. and ceremonies.

“I am thrilled to be working in a place where I can give back to my community. “

Laura Wilbur, a member of the Swinomish tribe who now works for the seashell business, spent her childhood playing at the site, which her grandfather helped build, while still selling salmon. Today she is one of the handful of full-time employees of the Swinomish Shellfish Company. “I’m thrilled to be working in a place where I can give back to my community,” she said, standing near the front of the store where the company sells fresh oysters to the public on Fridays, her long waders pulled up. ‘to the thighs.

The shellfish company also sells its oysters at gas stations around the reserve for around a dollar each. Oysters become a mainstay of community gatherings. “Swinomish Fish Company is not just about tribal income,” Thomas said. During the pandemic, the tribe worked to help alleviate food insecurity in the community. Along with a box of staples and fresh produce from a local farm, it also had more traditional dishes: oysters, cleaned and ready to eat, fresh from Puget Sound.

The Swinomish Shellfish Company oyster farm seen during the rising tide.

Sarah Sax is the climate justice researcher at High Country News currently living in countryside Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Reporting of this story was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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