Some islanders contend that Tramp Harbor is not a suitable location to operate a proposed commercial shellfish enterprise because the area is both beloved for its natural beauty and recognized as an important natural habitat.
An application for the project, at 6 acres in size, was filed in November by island produce farmer Nick Provo and is still under review by the Department Of Local Services Permitting Division as part of the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process. The bid will need further appraisal from the county before a decision is made to issue a permit and allow the development to proceed.
But before that happens, county officials will need to determine if further action will be required to mitigate potential issues at the location.
That could ultimately result in the county performing a months-long environmental impact study, setting back Provo’s goal to start growing shellfish by the end of the year.
In all, 41 responses were collected during a public comment window that closed last month, according to Laura Casey, permitting division project manager at the Department of Local Services. While a few of the comments were optimistic or supportive of the project, she said, the majority were skeptical of its merits and critical of the proposal.
Many of the comments questioned the potential impact a commercial operation would pose on habitat and wildlife. There were also concerns about how the site would be used to cultivate pacific oysters and manila clams, as Provo has proposed, and whether past industrial activities in the area may have contaminated the sediment in the tidelands.
Other concerns focused on issues such as lighting — shellfish cultivation would take place at night — along with parking and degradation of the waterfront. Casey said the next task is to determine whether a commercial shellfish farm may have significant adverse environmental effects at the site.
The Tramp Harbor tidelands are a well-known destination for waterfowl in the winter months, but no formal evaluation of a shellfish farm’s potential impact on them has been made at this time.
Trina Bayard, the Director of Bird Conservation at Audubon Washington, said in an email that when it comes to waterfowl, some sea duck species such as scoters are attracted to shellfish aquaculture because they view it as a concentrated food source.
“In terms of sensitivity and/or displacement as a result of shellfish operations, this will largely depend on … [waterfowl-deterring] pest control practices, the type of shellfish aquaculture, and the particular bird species, as some are much more tolerant of human activity than others, and some are more cosmopolitan in their food choices,” she said.
Quartermaster Harbor, immediately adjacent to Tramp Harbor, is designated as an Important Bird Area by Audubon Washington. The harbor supports about 8 percent of Washington’s population of Western Grebes in the winter months while sustaining other species during that season with forage fish and native shellfish favored by sea duck.
Joe Evenson of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has researched the interactions between shellfish aquaculture and sea ducks in the Salish Sea over many years. He said in a phone interview that the situation is complex because findings have varied as a number of results have been observed for different species.
The project’s potential impact on salmon is more clear.
The tidelands are in proximity to neighboring Judd Creek, a waterway that serves as a migratory habitat for Fall Chinook, coho, fall chum and winter steelhead. A critical area report prepared for the project found that a shellfish farm would have little impact on the creek due to its location on the other side of the isthmus connecting Maury Island to Vashon.
Some have taken issue with that characterization, noting that juvenile salmon travel great distances from their natal streams and will likely encounter the shellfish beds in their migration. There, they may be susceptible to new threats should the estuary be significantly altered by the 16 rows of floating flip bags containing the oysters and clams Provo intends to grow.
A 2004 study from the Department of Natural Resources and Parks found no significant difference in the numbers from a tally of juvenile chinook salmon between sites on Vashon-Maury Island and the mainland, suggesting that young salmon have more complicated patterns of distribution than once thought.
“This is not a small project and this is not a benign project,” said islander Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action and a member of Gov. Inslee’s orca task force, who opposes the development.
One potentially adverse effect on salmon life that has not been considered in the proposal, Carey noted, is shading from the flip bags. As the shellfish development would become a notable marine structure in the harbor, she said, it would — among other consequences for vegetation — introduce a significant amount of shading in the nearshore that would degrade the salmon’s ability to locate food, driving them into deeper water where they would be exposed to predation by larger fish.
“This goes all the way up to orcas,” she said. “We’re working very hard right now to increase salmon populations and again, the reason we don’t have salmon and [have] dwindling forage fish and orcas, [is] not a mystery, it’s because of development in nearshore areas.”
Several letters written to the permitting division in opposition of the project, including one by Carey, also indicate that the critical area report overlooks Ellis and Ellisport Creeks, in the upland area above Chautauqua Beach Drive SW. Both discharge into the tidelands below and are known to bear juvenile fish including cutthroat trout and coho salmon. A culvert under the road was targeted for restoration to aid fish passage there as part of the 2019-2020 budget for King County approved last November.
A 2007 evaluation of water and ground contamination at Ellisport in the upland area found petroleum deposits in the soil, and records from the state indicate the existence of pollution that was never fully addressed.
According to Cheryl Bishop of the toxics cleanup program at the Washington Department of Ecology, the site above the tidelands has been known to have petroleum contamination since 1999, when it was first reported. The former property owner had enrolled in the state’s Volunteer Cleanup Program in accordance with the Model Toxics Control Act to remediate the pollution, but communication about progress stopped, and after a year the department subsequently removed the site from the cleanup program.
After that, said Bishop, the site went off of the state’s radar. What existing contamination in the uplands could mean for the shellfish development, if any is still present, is unknown.
“We’re not clear what kind of risk it might have to that area,” said Bishop, noting that the main contamination risk to the harbor arises from the movement of groundwater from the uplands to the nearshore below.
Casey said there is little precedence at the Department of Local services for a project such as this, though one template already exists on the island. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe has cultivated oysters, clams, mussels and geoducks in mesh bags on a property on Vashon since 2004, and is the only other development like it in unincorporated King County that the permitting division regulates.
Provo’s company, Vashon Shellfish, entered a 10-year lease for the tidelands in 2017 with the Fuller family, who owns the property, according to James Spencer, an attorney and son of one of the owners. He said the property has belonged to the family for decades and that they love the beach. But aside from its current use for recreation, said Spencer, little else can be done with it. The property has an assessed value of $5,000, according to county records.
Spencer said his late father had first started a discussion some years ago about what to do with the property. Now the family has found an alternative use for it in the spirit of what he would have wanted.
Spencer added that he was not aware of the presence of any contamination in the tidelands, and believes the low impact methods Provo has proposed for cultivating the shellfish is considerate of the ecological importance and sensitivity of the site, noting that the development could also provide for some jobs.
“Do islanders want an island that is basically just a bedroom community, or do they want an island that has an economy of its own?” he said.