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Shellfish farm helps restore ecosystem

Betsy Peabody (foreground), Will Gueble (in the boat), Luc Tjemsland (next to the boat) place mesh seed bags to establish the Port Madison Community Shellfish Farm. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Betsy Peabody (foreground), Will Gueble (in the boat), Luc Tjemsland (next to the boat) place mesh seed bags to establish the Port Madison Community Shellfish Farm.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a Bainbridge-based environmental nonprofit, is betting the farm that people who eat shellfish from Port Madison Bay will become more aware of water quality surrounding the island.

The new Port Madison Community Shellfish Farm (PMCSF), planted last week in the tidelands in front of Bloedel Reserve, may be harvesting and selling its signature oysters, “Port Madison Petites,” possibly as early as this fall.

You can get a taste of the shellfish in three ways: Buy a Port Madison Community Shellfish Farm membership that will provide oysters throughout the year, similar to a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA); buy them at the Bainbridge Island Farmers’ Market; or order them at local restaurants.

Proceeds from the sale of the shellfish, as much as 18,000 Pacific oysters and 250 pounds of Manila clams a year, will support water quality improvement projects in the area.

One such project, said Restoration Fund Executive Director Betsy Peabody, is the operation of a mobile pump‐out vessel in Port Madison from June through August. Port Madison currently has no pump-out station. Boat discharge, under-maintained septic systems, animal feces and fertilizers are major contributors to poor water quality that Restoration Fund is trying to address.

Dumped, or carried into Puget Sound via storm water runoff, these sources add high quantities of nitrogen which creates an imbalance in the biosystem.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund has been on the forefront of developing a strategy to re-establish shoreline biosystems.

“In 2001, the lightbulb went on that planting new oyster beds was the way to restore water quality,” Peabody said. At the time, beaches were being closed due to poor water quality. The Restoration Fund team decided that simply closing beaches was not an effective response. Residents would have even less motivation to care about water quality, and the oysters themselves play a key role in revitalizing shoreline ecosystems.

“The oysters are like little rivets bolting the sea to the land, they are what makes the ecosystem one seamless whole,” Rowan Jacobsen wrote in “The Living Shore” (Bloomsbury, 2009) a book about a research mission he followed with part of the Restoration Fund team.

“If Peabody and her team can bring good health back to Puget Sound by restoring the intertidal zones, their research could serve as a model for saving the world’s oceans.”

The oysters Jacobsen refers to are native Olympia oysters, and while Peabody said there are remnant populations around Bainbridge Island, the oysters the Restoration Fund are planting are non-reproducing Pacific oysters. Restoring Olympia oyster populations off Bainbridge is a long-term goal, but one that requires approval from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to ensure that introduced oysters are genetically diverse.

In the meantime, the Pacific oysters, as bivalve filter feeders, will siphon through roughly 50 gallons of water daily. They feed on nutrients such as nitrogen, restoring balance to the ecosystem.

With PSRF’s help, more than 50 homeowners on the island have created oyster beds on private land and PSRF is hoping for more.

Homeowners with tideland access can get free “seed” oysters from 8-11 a.m. May 15 at the PSRF office, 590 Madison Ave. with advance reservations. The event is scheduled during a particularly low tide so participants can pick up the oysters and plant them the same day. A demonstration is at 10 a.m.

For more information, call 780-6947 or visit www.restorationfund.org.

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