Some Islanders say geoduck harvests work far too close to the shore

Geoduck harvesters are sometimes close to shore, raising concerns about Vashon’s eelgrass beds. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Geoduck harvesters are sometimes close to shore, raising concerns about Vashon’s eelgrass beds.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

The growing demand for geoduck has frustrated some Islanders, who say they’re seeing increasing harvest activity off the shores of Vashon — sometimes exceedingly close to the shoreline.

State and tribal agencies, which co-manage the highly regulated resource, have agreed that commercial extraction can occur only between a water depth of 18 to 70 feet. The nearshore areas are off-limits to wild-stock geoduck harvesting in order to protect the region’s eelgrass beds, considered a critical habitat for salmon, herring and other imperiled fish stocks that find refuge in the forest-like eelgrass.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages non-tribal commercial geoduck harvests, has decided that commercial boats have to stay at least 200 yards from shore, so as to better ensure divers are not in the inner-tidal areas where eelgrass grows.

Tribal fishery departments have developed their own regulations and have not established distance-from-shore restrictions, said David Winfrey, a biologist for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which harvests shellfish off of Vashon and Maury. But biologists who monitor the shellfish harvest are on board tribal boats, he said, ensuring the tribe’s commercial geoduck harvesters don’t violate the 18-foot water depth rule.

“When there is a very steep bottom, the boats can appear close to shore,” he said in an e-mail to The Beachcomber.

Some beachfront residents, however, say they know the contours of the sea floor in front of their homes and believe the boats are far too close to shore to ensure compliance with the regulations. The boats are often 30 yards or less from the water’s edge.

“We can tell you for a fact that they’re not observing any regulations with respect to staying out of the eelgrass,” said Pam Jewson, who lives at Piner Point on the southern tip of Maury, an area rich in eelgrass.

Vashon property owners recently sent photos of tribal harvesters near their homes to state officials, who have little authority over tribal harvest activities. But Ed Volz, who oversees the special investigative unit in the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marine division, said the state can step in when rules meant to protect the environment are being violated. He said he’s looking into residents’ complaints.

Geoduck harvesting off the shores of Vashon has been occurring for a few decades — though it has picked up in recent years, in part because of the clam’s record-high price and ongoing efforts to clean up Puget Sound. The state Department of Health, which determines whether an area is clean enough for shellfish harvesting, recently opened up a tract that had been closed for years along the central eastern edge of the Island; water quality improvements due to Vashon’s new sewage treatment plant led to the tract’s reopening.

Efforts are currently under way to clean up Quartermaster Harbor as well, almost all of which is also closed to commercial geoduck harvesting due to contaminants in the water.

For years, Islanders have complained about the boats, especially the so-called Darth Vader breathing — the sound of a diver on oxygen tanks, amplified so that the vessel’s tender can maintain contact with the diver. The state, which has gotten an earful about the issue over the years, recently required commercial harvesters to change their practice, and they now use quiet wireless systems to track divers. The tribes haven’t made that change.

“We have not received complaints about the breathing noise,” Winfrey said in an e-mail to The Beachcomber. “If we were to receive complaints, I’m sure the issue would be addressed.”

Some residents off of Seahurst and Piner Point on southern Maury, where a harvest is currently under way, are particularly frustrated. Residents say that the boats are out in the water by 7 a.m. these days, even though the tribe’s management plan dictates an 8 a.m. start time.

Jewson, a Piner Point resident, however, said it’s not the sound or early start times that trouble her. She’s concerned about the eelgrass beds off of Piner Point, particularly in light of the investment King County has made in restoring and protecting them. Two years ago, the county spent nearly $1 million purchasing a one-acre waterfront parcel at Piner Point, part of an effort to restore the nearshore ecosystem. A few months ago, the county spent another $240,000 removing a bulkhead.

She and her husband have also made an investment in eelgrass protection. When they rebuilt their bulkhead recently, the state required them to undertake four years of eelgrass surveys to ensure their bulkhead wasn’t hurting the sensitive habitat, a project that has cost them $18,000, Jewson said.

“I have no problem with the tribe exercising their treaty rights, as long as they abide by the same regulations,” she said.

Others, however, say it’s not at all clear that the tribal divers are within the eelgrass beds. Lynn Greiner, who owns a waterfront cabin, kayaked to one of the dive boats on Sunday and talked to the biologist on board, who told her that the divers have 300-foot lead lines that enable them to move out to the appropriate depth. They park their boats close to the shore, the biologist told her, because it’s easier on divers to submerge themselves in shallower depths.

The biologist also told her that they’re monitoring the tribe’s divers and the geoduck beds, ensuring — like the state — that the many rules regarding harvesting are followed.

“It made me feel better,” Greiner said. “It seems to be highly regulated, and it seems they’re playing by the rules.”

The issue is sensitive in the Puget Sound region. Bitter and high-profile clashes between tribal members asserting their right to fish salmon in their ancestral fishing grounds and state officials who saw them in violation of state laws unfolded in the 1950s and 60s, until the so-called Boldt decision in 1974 declared the tribes had a treaty right to half of the harvests.

Similar and more recent disputes have unfolded around clam and shellfish harvesting, settled by another federal court decision.

Tom Dean, who heads the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and pays keen attention to Vashon’s near-shore environment, said it’s important that Vashon residents keep this history in mind as they work to resolve questions around tribal harvests of geoducks.

“It’s difficult because you’re talking about a sovereign nation, not another state agency,” Dean added. “It’s easy to forget that.”

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