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Freeland shellfish district’s days may be numbered

Ben Watanabe / The Record Audrey Doyle, a Freeland resident, walks her dog, Maxwell, at Freeland Park on Tuesday. State health regulators are considering partially lifting a ban on shellfish harvesting in Holmes Harbor that’s been in place since 2006. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Ben Watanabe / The Record Audrey Doyle, a Freeland resident, walks her dog, Maxwell, at Freeland Park on Tuesday. State health regulators are considering partially lifting a ban on shellfish harvesting in Holmes Harbor that’s been in place since 2006.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

For the second time in less than two years, state water quality experts say the ban on shellfish harvesting in Holmes Harbor may be lifted within a few months.

According to Jule Schultz, a public health advisor with the state Department of Health’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, the results of a recently-completed study will pave the way for reopening of the area, at least partially.

“From this study we’re confident there will be harvesting opportunities a portion of the year,” Schultz said. “What portion that will be is still undecided.”

The Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District was established by the Island County commissioners in 2007 following the discovery of elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria in water samples. Shellfish harvesting has been closed since 2006.

County health and planning officials spent years working on the problem, and in 2012 Schultz said the ban on shellfish harvesting might be lifted within a few months depending on an examination of testing results. More than one year later, however, the ban remains in place and it’s vexing county officials.

“I’m frustrated that we’ve spent as much public dollars as we have on Holmes Harbor, and we still have a district and a beach closed to shellfish harvesting because we’ve been successful,” said Keith Higman, director of Island County Public Health.

According to Schultz, the source of the hold-up was conflicting data. Fresh water outlets were found free of the offending bacteria, but near-shore results continued to show showed high levels of fecal coliform bacteria as of last year.

“We found some seriously elevated numbers even after the clean-up,” he said.

Worried something was missed, a year-round study was commissioned — the initial testing was seasonal — and the new results showed that only the summer months saw unacceptable levels of bacteria. It’s enough to warrant seasonal harvesting but the state process is slow and it will be several months yet, Schultz said.

“I hope to have this issue resolved as soon as April ... it’s certainly on my plate right now,” he said.

Schultz said he was sorry for the delay but that he feels it was necessary.

“I just wanted to cover my bases,” he said. Ben Watanabe / The Record | State water quality experts say new data may provide for a partial lifting of a shellfish ban at Holmes Harbor.

It’s unclear at this time what a partial reopening would look like, but it’s unlikely it would include select summer months — June, July and August — as that’s when the highest levels of fecal coliform were found.

“I would call it a partial summertime closure,” Schultz said. “I’d say that’s what we’re considering.”

Also unclear is what effect it would have on the protection district. It can only be dissolved by vote of the commissioners, and Schultz said he didn’t know whether a partial lifting would warrant such an action.

Schultz said he believed the county did a good job cleaning up Holmes Harbor and that the state “appreciates their efforts to control pollution in the area.”

As for Higman, he’s anxiously waiting the day when the state gives the all clear because he’s eager to communicate the success story to the public.

“I’d love to tell that story,” he said. “But, it’s hard to tell that story with a sign on the beach that says, ‘Closed to shellfish harvesting.’ ”

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