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Feb. 5, 2023

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Fish farming in Washington goes back millennia — how will it survive?

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JOHN WAYNE MARINA, Sequim — A seed-grading machine obnoxiously whirred as tiny oyster shells shimmied through three levels of screens and shot out into empty buckets last week.

The contraption separates baby oysters by size, helping seafood workers determine which are ready to be “planted” off Littleneck Beach in Sequim Bay, sold to other shellfish farmers or plunged back into metal buckets full of cool harbor water to grow.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe relies on shellfish for sustenance, said Chair Ron Allen. And they have for millennia — it just didn’t always look like this.

Across the Salish Sea, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s clam garden was tucked within a grayish high tide. Raindrops sent ripples across the water off the shore of Kiket Island.

Traditional cultural ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest have long included forms of aquaculture, like clam gardens, where people create optimal habitat for the mollusks in hopes of boosting productivity. Today, it’s one piece of the complex, ever-evolving picture of fish farming in Washington state. But the commercial finfish farming of today shares little in common with the traditional Indigenous methods that long preceded it.

Just to the east of the Swinomish clam garden, Cooke Aquaculture’s net pen rose above the water’s surface.

There, the fish-farming giant raised nonnative Atlantic salmon. That was true until a 2017 collapse of net pens near Cypress Island released some 263,000 fish into the Salish Sea. In 2018, the state Legislature voted to phase out the farming of nonnative fish. The company turned to sterile steelhead trout — a species native to the region.

This month, state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz effectively ended commercial net-pen finfish farming in state waters.

Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian fish-farming company with operations all over the world, now has until Dec. 14 to remove its remaining net pens from state waters.

“The Salish Sea is a delicate ecosystem which requires our conservation and stewardship,” Teri Gobin, chair of the Tulalip Tribes, said in a statement.

“Working with the place”

Stone by stone, Swinomish tribal community members built some 30 tons of rock into a porous 200-foot-long, knee-high wall off the eastern shore of Kiket Island in Skagit Bay in August.

It’s said to be the first clam garden built in the country in around 200 years, said Joe Williams, a member of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Carbon dating revealed the practice dates back at least 3,500 years in the region.

There’s evidence of Coast Salish people’s clam gardens in the San Juan Islands and many remnants have been restored in British Columbia, Williams said.

The Swinomish clam garden is a piece of the legacy of Lorraine Loomis, a Swinomish fisheries leader and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chair. Loomis saw the need to protect fish and shellfish for future generations.

Swinomish organized trips for Williams, a former senator for the tribe, and other tribal leaders to visit the W?SÁNE? and Hul’q’umi’num First Nations clam gardens in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in British Columbia.

“We’re sharing stories back and forth, and I’m learning what the practices are, and realizing the abundance that can come from this type of gardening,” he said. “It’s not just the actual practice of gardening. It’s about getting the elders and the youngsters on the beach and passing down these stories and the teachings.”

Swinomish community members will return to the site regularly to dig into and aerate the sediment and remove plants that could deplete oxygen in the garden. They’ll also come to harvest shellfish and other creatures to make way for other growing organisms.

The new wall should allow in some sediment to slowly create a gently sloping habitat. In just a few decades, the garden could be home to many native butter and littleneck clams.

A 2014 study found that the biomass of native clams growing within ancient clam gardens in British Columbia was about double, and in some cases quadruple, that of those outside the gardens. And those gardens hadn’t been tended since colonization.

But the gardens aren’t just for clams.

The rock walls of the Swinomish garden might also attract sea cucumbers, sea urchins and starfish. Grass and kelp may begin to grow offshore, providing habitat for fish and other invertebrates, said Courtney Greiner, Swinomish marine ecologist.

It can also help people adapt to a changing climate. In 2009, Swinomish produced a climate impact assessment that said the rising ocean acidity levels as a result of greenhouse gas emissions were inhibiting shellfishes’ ability to grow shells. But the higher concentration of shell hash — little broken pieces of shells — within the clam gardens can help counteract it.

It’s not just about producing food, Williams said.

“Indigenous aquaculture is a whole other thing,” he said. “It’s about working with the place.”

The practice relies on natural processes, Greiner said. Nothing foreign is introduced to the site.

Meanwhile, in the remaining net pens across the bay, foreign fish, and later steelhead trout from hatcheries, were dumped into the contraption and fed food and nutrients that weren’t part of the natural system. And the practice of harvesting the fish was purely extractive, rather than improving the natural conditions, Greiner said.

“If we can’t harvest it”

Many Indigenous leaders along the Salish Sea backed Franz’s decision to end commercial net-pen farming. Some, like Lummi Nation Chair Tony Hillaire, said any risk to the health of marine relations — finfish, shellfish or the water itself — was too great of a risk.

Others said the net pens were physically interfering with treaty rights to fish in their usual and accustomed areas.

Allen, the Jamestown S’Klallam chair, opposed the commissioner’s decision. He believes fish farming is necessary to limit the potential overfishing of wild stocks and mitigate the effects of climate change on seafood abundance.

Franz said there will be a carve-out for tribes in her finfish farming policy, but it’s not yet clear what that may look like.

“We are into farming,” Allen said. “We are doing it with shellfish and want to do it with finfish.”

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe announced a joint venture with Cooke Aquaculture in 2019, with plans to raise fish off the Olympic Peninsula. The project was the vision of the late Kurt Grinnell, a tribal council member who helped launch Jamestown Seafood, the tribe’s shellfish farming enterprise.

Grinnell fished for sockeye and chum salmon and eventually dived for geoduck. He’d heard elders tell stories of plentiful salmon runs, crab and shellfish harvests, but that wasn’t something he saw in his lifetime.

“He thought, if we can’t harvest it anymore because of whatever issues are out there, we better darn well be growing it ourselves,” Jamestown Seafood CEO Jim Parsons said.

The tribe’s seafood company started with geoduck and is now in the oyster business, too. Down at Littleneck Beach, just a stone’s throw from the tribe’s casino, crushed pearly white oyster shells fill a small winding path to the shore.

Here, namesake littleneck clams once thrived without assistance. Now, Pacific oysters, native to the Pacific Coast of Asia, grow among the dark intertidal sediments.

The success of the small oyster operation is thanks in part to Parsons, a former general manager for Cooke’s West Coast operations. Before Cooke, he was a co-owner of Troutlodge, a trout egg producer. He knows commercial fish farming inside and out.

Today, Jamestown Seafood’s oyster production begins at a hatchery in Kona, Hawaii. The distant location is intentional — there, ocean acidification is less prominent and it’s easier for shellfish to grow. Elsewhere, high acidity eats away at the calcium carbonate that makes shells.

Those oyster babies are then flown to the Point Whitney hatchery to grow until they can head to the cool tanks in the John Wayne Marina and, finally, Sequim Bay.

Several generations ago, before settlers’ arrival, the Indigenous people of this region could sustainably rely on first foods like shellfish, salmon and native plants. “Having access to first foods and interacting with the land improves tribal health,” said Greiner, the Swinomish marine ecologist.

At Swinomish, the clam garden is a biocultural restoration project, she said. “One that improves ecological conditions but also restores connections between community and the land. And that just improves health all around us as we move forward with climate change.”

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