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Oyster farm makes a few clams

Wed., Feb. 4, 2009

Nonprofit’s proceeds fund water quality projects

OLYMPIA – After six years of operation, the Henderson Inlet Community Shellfish Farm reached a major milestone recently.

Operators of the nonprofit farm offered about 50 dozen oysters for sale on a January weekend, realizing one of the farm’s original goals when it opened in 2003.

The oysters sold out in a hurry, said Kira DeRito, one of the owners of Olympia Seafood, the seafood store that sold the locally grown seafood and returned all of the proceeds to the farm to help pay for water quality projects in the Henderson Inlet watershed.

“There was a great response from the public,” DeRito said. “It was kind of a party atmosphere.”

The farm in lower Henderson Inlet sits on Washington State University property at the north end of Sleater-Kinney Road. It is one of three community shellfish farms created by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund with several goals in mind, said restoration fund executive director Betsy Peabody.

•Serve as a community focal point for water quality projects and cleanup efforts in Puget Sound inlets, bays and harbors threatened by pollution. The other farms are in Drayton Harbor in Blaine and Bainbridge Island.

•Provide a place where students, waterfront residents and other community members can learn about the link between a healthy marine environment and shellfish. Each year, tideflat tours are hosted at the farm, attracting more than 300 students, teachers and parents.

•Grow shellfish to harvest and share with the community, and sell it to raise money for water quality projects in the watershed.

Success at the farm was touch and go for the first couple of years. It sits in an area of lower Henderson Inlet that has seen growing pollution problems caused by failing on-site septic systems, pet and livestock waste, and stormwater runoff from urban areas of Lacey, Olympia and Thurston County.

When it rains, harvesting at the farm must be curtailed until the bacterial contamination subsides.

“We hoped we’d be able to do this,” Peabody said of the recent small commercial sale. “But there was always a question about whether or not we could.”

Not only was pollution a problem, but the muddy tidelands aren’t the best for growing oysters, either, she said.

The farm’s future grew brighter in recent years when pollution problems forced Thurston County to create a Henderson Inlet Shellfish Protection District.

The county amped up its septic system maintenance and operation program in the watershed and the cities added new stormwater controls around Woodland Creek, which flows into the inlet.

The farm and other Henderson Inlet waterfront owners caught a break last summer when the growing area was upgraded by the state Department of Health. It now takes an inch of rain in 24 hours to shut down harvesting, rather than the previous one-half inch of rain in a day.

“That’s a sign of improvement,” said Brian Allen of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.

The recent oyster harvest attracted several Henderson Inlet residents and volunteers, including Tom Terry, who lives on the shoreline north of the community farm.

“The farm is a good mechanism to get neighbors involved in protecting the inlet and Puget Sound,” Terry said. “We started growing oysters on our beach about four years ago, and three or four of my neighbors have started, too,” he said. “The network is spreading.”

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