Enjoy Puget Sound oysters? Consumers should support environmental action
The ultimate solution to preservation of a robust Puget Sound oyster-farming industry is to protect the Sound, writes guest columnist Jonathan Huang. He urges support for a bill before the Legislature to reduce stormwater runoff and its environmental consequences.
Special to The Times
THIS winter, many lucky oyster-lovers across the Pacific Northwest will take advantage of the prodigious bounty of shapes, sizes and briny flavors faithfully raised right here in Western Washington. If you are someone who can't bear to go a season without at least a dozen of these natural treasures, iced and on the half-shell, it pays to understand a little about the ongoing efforts to keep them in the Puget Sound.
Responsible for a nationally recognized, signature food of the Pacific Northwest, oyster farming depends on the willingness of Puget Sound inhabitants to protect their precious water resources.
While local oyster growers have conducted safe and sustainable operations in the Puget Sound for years, they have had to fight to retain safe habitats for their charges. Contamination from development, industry and runoff has dramatically hurt the area with suitable waters for oyster farming.
A recent spat (coincidentally, also the term for a baby oyster) between the Food and Drug Administration and Gulf Coast oyster purveyors has heightened consternation over the security of our oyster industry.
In an October decision, the FDA banned the sale of unprocessed Gulf Coast oysters between April and October. The ban required distributors to sterilize all oysters sold for raw or cooked consumption. Oyster harvesters and restaurants from Louisiana to Texas and Florida fought this regulation as both unnecessarily cost-prohibitive, but more importantly, destructive of the subtle flavors prized in these shellfish.
Shortly thereafter, the ban was withdrawn for further research, according to the FDA, but had already caused some concern whether such a ban would extend to the Northwest. While the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria targeted by the ban aren't present in our cold-water oysters, the prospects of losing such an iconic food to unnecessary regulations or otherwise merits a closer examination of the environmental threats to the oyster industry.
As of the latest Puget Sound Partnership's State of the Sound Report, overall stormwater runoff (and not point sources, such as waste discharges or industrial spills) remains the largest contributor toward restrictions of shellfish harvesting.
Runoff is a major consequence of development: As the proportion of impervious surfaces such as roofs, roads and parking lots increases, the ability for the ground to absorb water decreases. Consequently, runoff containing petroleum products, heavy metals, pesticides and human and animal waste disperse throughout the Sound and often make the shoreline too contaminated for safe shellfish production.
In 2005, nearly one-third of the Sound's available shellfish farming area had high enough bacterial pollution to restrict harvesting. Thirty-six farming areas were listed as threatened at least once between 1997 and 2006. Over the past 25 years, the area available for commercial shellfish harvesting in the Puget Sound has been reduced by nearly 30,000 acres, especially in the urbanized corridor between Tacoma and Everett.
There is little individuals and small-scale farmers can do to address the regional problems presented by runoff. To that end, a unique plan that aims to systematically reduce stormwater runoff into the Puget Sound will shortly go before the state Legislature. House Bill 1614, supported by the Environmental Priorities Coalition, will also have the beneficial byproduct of creating jobs through a variety of projects at a critical time for this economy.
The ultimate solution to Puget Sound contamination as well as preservation of a robust (and unrestricted) oyster-farming industry will require broader action regarding development in the greater Sound area. Consequently, it behooves both enjoyers of shellfish and of those concerned with the overall health of the Sound to be supportive of bills like HB 1614 that strive to reduce stormwater runoff into the Sound. Your taste buds will thank you.Jonathan Huang of Seattle is a graduate student in Community-Oriented Public Health Practice at the University of Washington.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.