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Planting for the harvest
Waterfront owners become tide-flat farmers as they establish shellfish gardens aided by Puget Sound Restoration Fund.
To get to her farm, Ruth Carr follows a steep, wooded trail down a bank to a stretch of shoreline just north of Port Madison.
At low tide her crops, two rows of black plastic cages bulging with oysters and clams, can be seen protruding a few inches above the mud of the beach’s intertidal zone.
Carr tends the eight bags with about a dozen other homeowners in the neighborhood. Their shellfish garden is one of 20 spread across Bainbridge Island shorelines, established with help from the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund over the past two years. In addition to establishing more individual gardens, the Restoration Fund and partner organizations are beginning a push this year to establish a large-scale community shellfish garden somewhere on the island.
For residents like Carr, the shellfish gardens provide both a steady supply of seafood and a sense of accomplishment.
By continually feeding on phytoplankton, the oysters and clams in the bags are straining nutrients, including nitrogen, from Puget Sound. Those nutrients trickle into the Sound from myriad sources, including stormwater drains, leaky septic systems and sewage from boats.
Carr said she and a group of neighbors had cleared a trail down to the shoreline, and, inspired by their new waterfront access, were looking for way of helping clean up Puget Sound.
They heard about the Restoration Fund’s shellfish program two years ago and bought a starter kit, which costs about $275. Since then, they have shared both the work and the harvests.
“It’s really fun with a big group,” Carr said.
During low tide Thursday morning, Carr added two new bags to their collection with the help of Restoration Fund Project Manager Morgan Rohrbach and volunteer Zoe Kreft.
Each bag contains about 120 baby seed shellfish, supplied by islander Joth Davis, owner Baywater Inc., an aquaculture company on Hood Canal. Carr has a variety of bags, some containing native Olympic oysters, others holding non-reproducing Pacific oysters or clams.
To secure the seed bags, Carr and Rohrbach drove rebar posts into the mud about eight feet apart and strung a cord between them. The end of each bag is secured to the cord, and a rectangular depression is dug into the beach for each cage to rest in.
Once the bags are tied down, Carr and other owners perform weekly maintenance chores. The bags must be flipped to promote even growth among the occupants, and algae and silt must be scraped off the surface to keep water flowing through so the shellfish can feed themselves.
Protected from predators such as birds and otters, shellfish in the bags have a near 100 percent survival rate. The ravenous Pacific oysters grow rapidly and reach ideal size for slurping raw after 12 to 18 months. If not picked, they can grow to six inches in two years.
The slower-developing Olympic oysters don’t measure up to the non-natives in size, but eclipse them with flavor, according to Carr.
Clam bags are harvested after two years, and each bag yields about 10 pounds. The shellfish farmers can replant bags and harvest each year, but like recreational shellfish harvesters, they must be wary of toxin advisories that sometimes close beaches from harvests.
“We harvest all year long,” Carr said. “All I have to do is call the (shellfish) hotline and make sure it’s safe first.”
Carr and her fellow farmers enjoy their homegrown oysters close to the source.
After picking a bag, they tote the oysters a few yards up the beach to a grassy barbecue area, and roast their harvest with a view of the Sound.
Carr doesn’t buy oysters from the store anymore.
“Not after tasting these,” she said.
In the two years since the program began, Rohrbach has helped establish gardens for waterfront owners on shores from Agate Pass to Blakely Harbor and Crystal Springs. She plans to help establish another set of gardens for residents in August.
Meanwhile, the Restoration Fund is working with Sustainable Bainbridge, and plans to coordinate with the Bainbridge Watershed Council, Bainbridge Graduate Institute, the city and the Suquamish Tribe, to create a large shellfish garden at a community center such as the Bloedel Reserve.
Ideally, Rohrbach said, residents without waterfront property could have a share in the garden, and harvests could be sold at farmers markets and restaurants.
There are plenty of challenges to overcome, not the least of which is permitting.
While the individual gardens like Carr’s have been installed as part of a pilot program, with permission from state agencies, a larger commercial garden would require permitting from the city, county, state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers.
But Rohrbach believes a community garden would be an appetizing way to educate residents and visitors about Puget Sound pollutants.
“We want to create something that will spur people to care for water quality,” Rohrbach said.
To find out more about installing a shellfish farm, or supporting a community farm, contact Morgan Rohrbach at 780-6947 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Sustainable Bainbridge and the Community Shellfish Garden Project will give a presentation on shellfish farms at Sustainable First Monday at the Commons, on Brien Drive at 7 p.m. Aug. 4. The beach closure hotline is (800) 562-5632.