A favorite shellfish beach in West Penn Cove has closed this spring to give clams a chance to recover their populations. However, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has extended the harvest season at Freeland County Park from January 1 to May 15 in 2017.
Freeland County Park was closed to shellfish harvesting for nine years due to water quality concerns. However, efforts to clean up water at the site led to reopening the shellfish harvest there for six weeks in the spring of 2015 and for ten weeks in the spring of 2016.
Shellfish are filter feeders, so if there is pollution in the water, there will be pollution in the shellfish. In the last decade, the Island County Department of Environmental Health went door to door speaking to watershed residents about their septic systems and how they can affect water quality. Most people voluntarily had their systems inspected. The county offered financial assistance for those who needed help with repair or replacement.
The Conservation District held workshops on storm water runoff and, with the help of volunteers, installed a rain garden at the edge of the parking lot to filter pollutants coming off the pavement.
The Island County Parks Department installed four new pet waste bag dispensers in and around the park. Water quality improved but continues to be a challenge.
Freeland County Park is at the south end of Holmes Harbor, a narrow six-mile long bay. In summer, the wind comes from the north and blows layers of sea grasses, called wrack, up on the beach. Sometimes the wrack is two feet thick. It catches any pollution coming from the shore and holds on to it, creating a warm, protected nursery for growing bacteria. Automotive fluids, pet waste, livestock manure, and septic system leaks collect in the wrack and stay close to shore all summer, impacting water quality.
In late fall the wind changes direction and blows primarily from the south, which gradually clears the beach of wrack. Water quality improves through the winter. So this year, the State Department of Health approved an extended shellfish harvest season beginning January 1.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is the agency that determines the harvest season based on the population of shellfish at any given site. In the past two years, volunteers have been taking a low tide count of shellfish harvesters during the harvest season at Freeland County Park. Flyovers are also used to help count shellfish harvesters. At the end of the season, WDFW staff took an inventory of the number and species of shellfish at the site. They found enough abundance to extend the season to four and half months. By mid-May, the wind will change direction and the wrack will start to build up on the beach, again resulting in diminishing water quality. So the season will be closed for the summer.
Water has been sampled at the park weekly through the summer by Island County Environmental Health in partnership with the State Department of Ecology. Signs posted by the boat launch alert the public to swimming and shellfish concerns. A clickable map on the Department of Health website indicates safe shellfish harvesting sites. It’s updated daily. You can check this map from your phone or computer before you reach for bucket and shovel.