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Puget Sound Restoration Fund plots Bainbridge's first 'shellfish farm'

Morgan Rohrback flips a series of test bags full of shellfish along the tidelands near Bloedel Reserve. The farm plans to support more than 18,000 oysters and 250 pounds of clams annually. - Staff Photo/ Brad Camp
Morgan Rohrback flips a series of test bags full of shellfish along the tidelands near Bloedel Reserve. The farm plans to support more than 18,000 oysters and 250 pounds of clams annually.
— image credit: Staff Photo/ Brad Camp

Six months from now a kayaker paddling past the stately Bloedel Reserve mansion may unknowingly skim above a thriving farm field.

On a tide flat below the property on north Bainbridge, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and a host of partners have plans to sow the island’s first "Community Shellfish Farm."

When the farm is in full swing, it will be capable of producing 18,000 oysters and 250 pounds of Manila clams annually, all from a plot of sand obscured from view except at low tide.

The farmers’ market stands and seafood feeds that the farm supplies will all be tools for achieving a single goal, said Morgan Rohrbach, the project’s manager.

“Drawing attention to water quality is what this farm is all about,” Rohrbach said.

Four test bags of oysters now mark the site on the tide flats where – permits pending – the Restoration Fund and its partners will begin laying in the farm this fall.

The project has earned approval from the city and the state Health Department and is awaiting approval from the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The farm plot will measure 75-by-20 feet, planted on a stretch of tideland that the Restoration Fund is leasing from Bloedel Reserve. Rows of staked line will anchor 100 plastic-mesh bags of Pacific oysters buried in the sand. (To prevent the spread of the non-native species, the Restoration Fund uses a “triploid” oyster incapable of reproducing.)

The Restoration Fund had plans for a more extensive farm but scaled back the design to reach accord with some neighbors of the project site.

“There were a few neighbors that were really concerned about the visual impact and the environmental impact,” Rohrbach said.

“There was some concern from the neighbors about the size of the project and we met with them,” said Dave Hughbanks, who is the acting executive director of Bloedel Reserve. “The neighbors are satisfied now with the compromise and there’s no reason not to think it is a manageable amount of square footage. So, yes, it has our blessing.”

City regulations have also confined the placement of the farm. It must be located to avoid foraging fish spawning grounds nearshore, and herring grounds in deeper water.

“We’re working within a window here,” Rohrbach said.

The first oyster harvest will likely come in 2010, with the slower-growing clams following in 2012. Shellfish from the farm will be sold at a farmers market stand and may appear in island restaurants.

The “community” aspect of the shellfish farm is represented in the long list of partner organizations and volunteers with whom the Restoration Fund is coordinating. The Bloedel Reserve has been supportive, as have Sustainable Bainbridge, Bainbridge Watershed Council, Sound Food, Cherry Creek Environmental, law firm Gordon Derr, Baywater Incorporated and the Harbour Public House. The project recently received grants of $5,000 from the Safeway Foundation and $1,000 from the Bainbridge Community Foundation. The Restoration Fund is still looking to add more partners.

Sustainable Bainbridge Vice-President Sallie Maron said the shellfish farm melds local food production and environmental health education into an appealing package.

“It’s a community-building activity that engages people in something that benefits everyone,” Maron said. “It’s a little hard not to support something like that.”

Even with limited publicity, shellfish farm organizers have also already assembled a roster of 50 volunteers, a sign to Rohrbach that the project is already creating a buzz.

“We just want to get people talking,” Rohrbach said. “We want to get their ideas, because people here know a lot.”

Alongside development of the shellfish farm, the Restoration Fund plans to launch a water-quality education campaign, focused, at first, on Port Madison Bay.

In Rohrbach’s eyes, oysters are a natural mascot for the effort. The bivalves are filter feeders, capable of siphoning through more than 50 gallons of water daily. All the while, they glean nutrients such as nitrogen, which can cause oxygen-robbing algae blooms.

The campaign will target sources of nutrients, including under-maintained septic systems, discharge boats, and animal feces and fertilizers that can be carried into Puget Sound in stormwater runoff.

The campaign will launch in July when the Restoration Fund plans to provide boat pump-out services in Port Madison Bay with the mobile pump service “Sweet Pea.” Rohrbach, who grew up in Port Madison, hopes the Restoration Fund can gather enough donations to provide a permanent pump-out station for the busy harbor, which currently has no pump-out facility.

Bounty from the community farm may also spur interest in household shellfish farms, Rohrbach said. The Restoration Fund has already facilitated 30 small farms around the island and will offer more this summer.

As harvests from the community farm begin, the Restoration Fund plans to incorporate shellfish into the campaign. One idea is to offer free shellfish to homeowners who show a receipt from having their septic systems pumped.

Servings of shellfish, Rohrbach believes, will help sell the science behind clean water.

“We want to make it fun, rather than hitting people over the head with it,” Rohrbach said.

BOX:

For information on the community shellfish farm, the Sweet Pea pump-out service or becoming a shellfish farmer, contact Morgan Rohrbach at morgan@restorationfund.org.

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