By Phuong Le Associated Press
SEATTLE — Washington state’s cool marine waters make growing oysters, clams and mussels ideal, but hurdles with permits, farmers say, means they aren’t able to grow as much as they would like to meet increasing demand.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Gov. Chris Gregoire want to change that. On Friday, they announced a new initiative to help the farmers grow more shellfish responsibly, as well as promote shellfish research and rebuild native populations of Olympia oysters and pinto abalone.
The Washington initiative is part of a larger push by the federal government to close a $9 billion trade deficit in seafood, and the first state action under the National Shellfish Initiative. NOAA estimates about 84 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and half of that comes from fish farms. Last June, the agency released guidelines on how fish can be farmed responsibly in federal waters.
“We recognize how important shellfish aquaculture is in providing local seafood, providing jobs and helping to restore the environment,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who joined Gregoire at a Friday news conference at Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, about 80 minutes southwest of Seattle. She said she hoped Washington would be a model for other states in promoting healthy, sustainable shellfish.
Gregoire said Friday she’ll direct $2 million in federal money to help local governments identify and correct water pollution problems that can close shellfish beds to harvests. She’ll distribute $2.5 million in federal grants to help counties fix failing septic tanks and prevent manure from fouling shellfish beds. She also plans to gather together experts to address the problem of ocean acidity that could harm shellfish.
Local, state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, would work together to streamline the permit process for farmers, while still ensuring there are environmental checks and balances, officials said.
“We’re stuck in a permit quagmire,” said Bill Dewey, a spokesman with Taylor Shellfish, which has been growing its operations in Canada but would like to expand in Washington. “Demand has exceeded supply for years and we’re anxious to try to fulfill that demand.”
Washington state is the nation’s leading producer of farmed shellfish with about $107 million in annual sales. The industry supports about 3,200 jobs and contributes $270 million to the state economy, according to the state. Demand for Washington’s prized shellfish has long exceeded supply nationally and globally, the governor said.
Recent efforts to streamline aquaculture permitting in Maryland have helped open up more oyster farms. In the past year, the state issued 21 permits for oyster leases, and they’re doing so within 120 days, said Karl Roscher, assistant director of fisheries services for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
There have been few new shellfish farms in Washington over the past several years.
“As a small business, the number one issue for our survival is the permit process,” said Vicki Wilson, who owns Arcadia Point Seafood with husband, Steve. The company grows geoducks — the highly-prized large burrowing clams — on about 7 acres of private land in south Puget Sound. It employs four full-time workers and between 50 and 70 people on a temporary basis over the year.
The company applied for permits in 2009 to open two new farms totaling less than two acres. They’re still trying to get permit approvals from state, county and federal agencies. “The whole process has been so incredibly frustrating and demoralizing,” Wilson said.
“The fact that NOAA is wanting to push this and the governor is wanting to push this — this is a huge deal for the industry,” she added.
Some environmental groups and others, however, have raised concerns about the federal government’s broader push to boost seafood production through fish farming. Critics say some types of fish farming, particularly of finfish such as salmon, can pose risks of pollution, habitat damage and diseases. Locally, there have been intense debates over the impacts of geoduck farming.
Marie Logan, an analyst with the public-interest group Food &Water Watch, said NOAA’s policies historically have tended to favor industrial expansion of the aquaculture industry, at a loss to consumers and the environment. However, she and others say oyster, mussel and clam farms, when carefully located and well designed, can help expand U.S. seafood production, while also improving water quality.
Oyster and other shellfish filter water as they feed and provide critical habitat for other species, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund.
On Friday, NOAA announced a $200,000 grant to help the state restore native Olympia oysters. The fund will work with the state, NOAA, tribes and others on that project.
“Shellfish are incredibly important when it comes to maintaining the health of estuaries,” she said.