Shellfish harvesting in Birch Bay is rooted in the culture of Whatcom County. After a decade of pollution-related closure, there is cause for celebration, as the shellfish growing area at the mouth of Terrell Creek is once again open to harvest!
For centuries, the large abundant bay nestled between Point Whitehorn and Birch Point was used seasonally for shellfish foraging and ceremonial harvesting by the Coast Salish people. The Lummi Nation referred to it as Strav-a-wa, meaning “the place for clams.” In the late 1700s, the place came to be known as Birch Bay, named by British explorers for the thick stands of black birch trees lining the shores. In the 1890s, farmers from Lynden would make the daylong trek by wagon to collect horse and butter clams from Birch Bay when tides were low. A community clambake would follow upon their return to Lynden the next day, forming the Clam Diggers Club of Lynden that still meets today.
In 2003, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) listed Birch Bay as a "threatened" shellfish growing area due to declining water quality. In 2008, the area around the mouth of Terrell Creek, the largest tributary into Birch Bay, was closed year-round to shellfish harvesting due to high counts of fecal coliform bacteria. Fecal coliform bacteria is an indicator of animal and human waste in the water. The creek originates at Lake Terrell and meanders approximately nine miles through rural, farm, industrial, and urban areas before emptying into Birch Bay, picking up fecal coliform bacteria from a variety of sources along the way. Determined to clean up the creek, community members, local government, and non-profit organizations spent years working toward that goal.
January 2018 marks the success of this decade-long effort with the upgrade of 129 acres of shellfish harvesting area from “Prohibited” to “Approved.” An evaluation of the growing area by DOH found lower fecal coliform bacteria levels in Terrell Creek due to the extensive efforts by community members, Whatcom County Public Works (WCPW), Whatcom Conservation District (WCD), the Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management (BBWARM) District, the Chums of Terrell Creek, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee, and other partners to find and eliminate fecal coliform pollution sources.
Whatcom County and WCD received grant funding from the Environmental Protection Agency from 2010-2015 to implement the Terrell Creek Landowner Stewardship Program, which provided technical and financial assistance to landowners with non-dairy agricultural activities, septic system maintenance and operation practices, and the implementation of best management practices that resolve fecal coliform bacteria problems. Forty-eight landowners were involved in the program which achieved the following over a five-year time span:
- 26 farms assessed,
- 5,729 feet of exclusion fencing installed,
- 5 manure storage facilities constructed,
- 4 heavy use areas installed or improved,
- 56,630 feet of riparian area improved and protected, and
- Over 27,000 native plants established.
Additionally, nine septic systems were inspected, three repaired and two replaced through a partnership with the Whatcom County Health Department.
Several years ago, Washington State established a recovery target of increasing harvestable shellfish beds by 10,800 acres in Puget Sound by 2020. That formidable goal resulted in a massive effort to reduce bacterial pollution in local waterways around the region. In December 2016, clean-up efforts led to the reclassification of 810 acres in Drayton Harbor. Now with another 129 acres in Birch Bay, Whatcom County is leading the way in Puget Sound shellfish recovery.
To keep the shellfish beds open, it is important to continue working together as a community to improve water quality. Simple actions citizens can take to be a part of the solution include: inspecting and maintaining septic systems, fencing animals out of waterways, managing mud in pastures, covering manure storage areas, planting shrubs and trees along creek banks, using public restrooms at the shoreline, using boat pump out stations at the marina, picking up pet waste, and securing pet food away from wildlife. The public can access current water quality monitoring results for the Birch Bay and Terrell Creek watershed and other Whatcom County watersheds at http://www.whatcomcounty.us/2608/Routine-Monitoring-Results.
Shellfish harvesting restrictions related to biotoxin and pollution can change daily, so always “Check Before You Dig.” For the current shellfish safety information and beach status, visit www.doh.wa.gov/shellfishsafety.html. For questions regarding shellfish harvest closures, contact Tom Kunesh from the Whatcom County Health Department at (360) 778-6034 or TKunesh@co.whatcom.wa.us.