News from the Puget Sound Partnership

Michael Grayum
(360) 628-1907


Progress made preventing pollution in Samish Bay, more work ahead

TACOMA –Property owners and state and local partners are all working together and making progress reducing bacterial pollution in the Samish Bay, despite the temporary shellfish harvest closure that began Thursday. The Puget Sound Partnership (Partnership) reports bacterial pollution in Samish Basin waters is on a declining trend. Partnership Executive Director Gerry O’Keefe is encouraged by the progress and urged all community partners to continue the collaboration that has improved pollution prevention in Samish Bay.

“Clean water, economically viable farmlands, and harvestable shellfish are integral to a healthy Puget Sound. We have seen significant improvements in recent months thanks to this coordinated effort. We must build on our collective progress and keep the momentum going,” O’Keefe said.

The Washington State Department of Health announced the closure because of high levels of fecal bacteria from the Samish River. When the numbers of fecal coliform bacteria are high, the bay is closed to assure that contaminated shellfish are not marketed and consumed.

State health officials downgraded the area to “Conditionally Approved” in 2011 due to repeated incidents of high bacterial pollution entering the bay from the Samish River and other tributaries in recent years. Previous data revealed two-thirds of the closures in the Samish Bay have happened in the March to June and the agency has been watching fecal pollution levels during this same timeframe to determine whether 4,000 acres of Samish Bay commercial shellfish beds could be returned to “Approved” status later this year. To return to that status, there could only be one pollution closure between March 1 and June 30.

The current closure marks the second pollution closure, including the one on March 10-14. Consequently, the Department of Health is unable to reclassify the bay this year.

Despite this closure, much progress has been made to reduce fecal bacteria concentrations in Samish Bay. “The shellfish harvest closure in Samish Bay is disappointing, but should not leave us discouraged,” said Gerry O’Keefe, executive director of the Partnership. “The increased cooperation among farmers, landowners and agencies is working and having a real and measurable effect.”

Responding to increasing levels of fecal bacteria concentrations in recent years, more than 20 private organizations and government agencies began working together in 2009 to solve the pollution problem through an effort called the Clean Samish Initiative. Last year, Governor Gregoire directed the Puget Sound Partnership to coordinate and bolster efforts in the basin to help lift the shellfish harvesting restriction by September 2012.

Samish Bay usually has good water quality, but tests show that when there is a lot of rural runoff into the Samish River, it contaminates the bay. Data show the highest bacteria levels have occurred during high flows after rains from March through June.

Bacteria pollution in the Samish basin can occur when septic systems fail; when rainfall washes animal waste off farm land; when pet waste is not picked up and properly disposed of; when hunters, fisherman and hikers go to the bathroom outdoors; and when boaters dump human waste into the water. Polluted runoff is highest after heavy rainstorms. The pollution makes the water unsafe for shellfish harvesting and recreation.

“Bacterial levels are trending down, with less frequent and shorter protective shellfish harvest closures and lower amounts of bacteria when closures do occur. The many hardworking efforts throughout the community to protect Samish waters can succeed if all involved keep the momentum going and we continue working together,” O’Keefe said.

Clean Samish Initiative partners have taken a variety of significant steps to prevent bacteria pollution, such as:

“As a result of these coordinated efforts, the amount of fecal bacteria pollution in the river, bay and their tributaries has declined. We still see spikes during big storms that exceed health thresholds for the bay, but we also see an overall downward trend compared to the last three years. All the Clean Samish Initiative partners share a commitment to maintain this positive trend, to see fewer and fewer closures and to again classify these shellfish beds as ‘Approved,’’ said O’Keefe.

All parties are committed to continue to identify and correct pollution sources in the watershed. The Department of Health will evaluate the March through June time period in 2013 to determine whether a re-classification of the area can occur next year. The work done to date, coupled with additional work slated for the coming year, provides justifiable optimism for an upgrade in 2013.

Media Contacts:
Michael Grayum, Puget Sound Partnership, 360.628.1907,
Dave Workman, Department of Ecology, 360.407.7004,
Tim Church, Departmnet of Health, 360.236.4077,
Jason Kelly, Departmnet of Agricutlure, 360.902.1815,
Rick Haley, Skagit County, 360.419.3424,
Carolyn Kelly, Skagit Conservation District, 360.428.4313,

For more information:
Puget Sound Vital signs/shellfish:
Washington Shellfish Initiative:
Department of Ecology’s website:

Video and photo opportunities available through site visits with local and state officials, and landowners.

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