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Commercial Shellfish Downgrade

Washington State Department of Health (DOH) monitors marine waters for pollution and evaluates shellfish growing areas in the state to determine their suitability for commercial harvest.  DOH classifies growing areas as Approved, Conditionally Approved, Restricted, or Prohibited for commercial harvest based on proximity to pollution sources, marine water sampling results, and other factors.  Clean water is essential for safe shellfish harvest, because “filter feeders” such clams, mussels, oysters, and geoducks accumulate bacteria and viruses as they filter large amounts of water in search of food.

To learn more about Commercial Shellfish Downgrades in Dungeness Bay see the following topics:

History of Shellfish Downgrades in Dungeness Bay

For years, Dungeness Bay was certified by DOH as Approved for commercial shellfish harvest.  Bacterial pollution problems in Dungeness Bay and the lower Dungeness River watershed emerged during the 1990s. 

  • In 1997, water quality monitoring by DOH showed fecal coliform bacteria counts were increasing near the mouth of the Dungeness River in Dungeness Bay.  By the fall of 1997, bacteria levels near the river mouth exceeded the federal limit for fecal coliform.
  • Starting in November 1999, Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) conducted a series of water quality and stream flow surveys as part of a water cleanup study, also called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study.  The study area included the lower Dungeness River, Matriotti Creek, Meadowbrook Creek, and other tributaries.  Ecology later performed a second fecal coliform TMDL study for Dungeness Bay. 
  • In 2000, DOH reclassified 300 acres of Dungeness Bay near the mouth of the Dungeness River from Approved to Prohibited year-round for commercial shellfish harvest.  The shellfish area was downgraded because fecal coliform levels in the bay did not meet National Shellfish Sanitation Program requirements for water quality in commercial shellfish harvesting areas.  
  • In 2001, DOH added 100 acres to the closure area.
  • In 2003, DOH classified the entire inner bay as Conditionally Approved, which means the area is open to commercial shellfish harvest from February through October but closed from November through January.  The seasonal closure protects public health from elevated fecal bacteria present in the inner bay during the winter.  The Prohibited area near the mouth of the river was enlarged slightly in 2003 and remained closed to commercial harvest year-round. 
  • In April 2011, DOH upgraded approximately 500 acres of the Dungeness Bay growing area from Prohibited to Conditionally Approved for commercial shellfish harvest.
  • In November of 2015, DOH upgraded an additional 688 acres of the Dungeness Bay growing area from Conditionally Approved to Approved and open year round
  • In 2016, 272 acres of shellfish growing area just offshore from the Dungeness River mouth were upgraded from “conditionally approved” to “approved.”
  • In 2020, 23 acres of shellfish growing area at the mouth of Golden Sands Slough and Cassalary Creek upgraded from "prohibited" to "approved."

The 2011 upgrade was due to improved marine water quality at monitoring stations near the mouth of the Dungeness River and the 2015 upgrade occurred as those improvement trends continued.  These changes in classification was prompted by the results of a comprehensive review of pollution conditions and water quality data by DOH, and follows years of cleanup actions, monitoring, and public outreach by Clallam County, Clallam Conservation District, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, and other partners. The tidelands surrounding the mouth of the Dungeness River are still closed to shellfish harvest year-round due to freshwater inputs from the river and Meadowbrook Creek, elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria in Meadowbrook Creek, and uncertainty about the marine water quality at the mouths of these drainages. 

Map of Current Commercial Shellfish Growing Area Classifications

This map shows the current status of the commercial shellfish downgrade in Dungeness Bay.  Clallam County also discourages recreational shellfish harvest from areas that are closed to commercial harvest, because the same health risks apply to recreational and commercial shellfish.

Click to download full sized PDF of Dungeness Shellfish Closure Areas Map
Click image to open full screen (PDF).

The Clean Water District

The shellfish downgrade in Dungeness Bay required Clallam County to form a shellfish protection district pursuant to RCW 90.72.  On October 11, 2000, a recommendation was made by the Dungeness River Management Team (DRMT) to the Board of Clallam County Commissioners to call the shellfish protection district a "Clean Water District" and to have its boundaries be the same as the management area of the DRMT.  The DRMT management area includes the Dungeness watershed and those waters influenced by it through the irrigation system and the Sequim Bay watershed.

The Sequim-Dungeness Clean Water District was formed by the Board of Clallam County Commissioners in June 2001, by ordinance CCC. 27.16.  The legal boundaries of the Clean Water District include the following areas within Clallam County: the Dungeness Watershed and those waters influenced by it through the irrigation system, and other independent tributaries to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, from Bagley Creek east to, and including, the Sequim Bay Watershed. The general Boundaries of the Clean Water District were used to designate a Marine Recovery Area in Clallam County as required by State code in 2006.
See the map of The Sequim-Dungeness Clean Water District Boundaries below: Figure 2: Clean Water District Boundaries

The Board of County Commissioners also adopted a nonpoint pollution plan called the Clean Water Strategy for Addressing Fecal Coliform in the Dungeness Bay Watershed.  The purpose of the strategy is to guide and coordinate cleanup actions to improve and protect water quality in Dungeness Bay and the Dungeness River watershed.  A local work group of citizens and government agency representatives known as the Clean Water Work Group developed the strategy and coordinates cleanup activities.  The Strategy was updated in 2004 with information from the two fecal coliform TMDL studies.  The updated Clean Water Strategy is part of Ecology’s Water Cleanup Detailed Implementation Plan for the Lower Dungeness Watershed and Dungeness Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads.

Water Quality Studies

Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)

A number of streams and ditches in the Dungeness watershed have sections called "reaches" that exceed state water quality criteria for fecal coliform. Matriotti Creek, a tributary to the Dungeness River, has been on Washington State’s 303(d) list of impaired waters since 1996 for not meeting fecal coliform criteria. With help from Clallam County and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Ecology conducted a comprehensive freshwater monitoring program in 1999–2000 to evaluate bacterial contamination in tributaries to the Dungeness River and Dungeness Bay. As required by the federal Clean Water Act, Ecology performed fecal coliform Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) studies of the lower Dungeness watershed (Sargeant 2002) and Dungeness Bay (Sargeant 2004). These technical studies established bacteria level targets that must be met to restore water quality for beneficial uses such as water contact recreation and shellfish harvest.

The TMDL studies found bacterial pollution comes from many small (nonpoint) sources in the watershed such as birds and wildlife, failing septic systems, farm animals, and pets. Ecology developed two water cleanup plans for the lower Dungeness watershed (Hempleman and Sargeant 2002) and Dungeness Bay (Hempleman and Sargeant 2004) to address sources of bacterial pollution, and one combined detailed implementation plan to guide both cleanups (Streeter and Hempleman 2004).  Ecology performed a follow-up effectiveness monitoring study in 2008–2009 to determine if TMDL targets and water quality criteria were being met (The Cadmus Group 2010).  The study found some stream reaches, including the lower Dungeness River, were meeting fecal coliform targets, while others continued to exceed TMDL targets or water quality criteria.

To find more information about Water Quality Projects in Clallam County, please see Ecology’s Directory Improvement Projects.

Dungeness River Targeted Watershed Initiative

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe received a Targeted Watershed Initiative Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a number of studies and demonstration projects addressing nonpoint source pollution in the Dungeness watershed (and other watershed threats), including an Effectiveness Monitoring Study, a Microbial Source Tracking Study, and a Mycoremediation Demonstration Project.  Please visit the Tribe’s Environmental Planning page for more information and to view technical reports prepared by Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory.

Pollution Identification and Correction Program (PIC)

See the Pollution Identification and Correction page for water quality monitoring information from 2015 to current.

Potential Impacts from Bacterial Pollution

The variety of impacts from bacterial pollution in the Dungeness watershed and Bay range from increased public health risk to decreased economic potential. Most importantly, bacterial pollution presents an increased health risk to residents and visitors to the area. Fecal coliforms are used as an indicator of bacterial waste and are a type of bacterium found in the feces of warm-blooded animals (e.g., humans, birds, and livestock). Most fecal coliform bacteria are not harmful, but their presence is used to indicate the potential for a variety of disease-carrying microorganisms, known as pathogens. If present, these pathogens are also transported in human and animal feces and can cause illnesses in humans ranging from stomach upset to more serious diseases, like hepatitis and typhoid. Increased amounts of fecal coliform in surface water indicate an increased chance that pathogens are in the water.

Humans are exposed to pathogens when wading or swimming in water and when we eat contaminated shellfish. People are exposed to pathogens when water is swallowed (via splashing or hand-to-mouth contact) or when water comes into contact with open cuts or wounds. Pathogens enter into the shellfish (oysters, clams and mussels) as they filter the water for food. There is concern that some people will continue to harvest shellfish in the closed area, either unaware of the posted closure or simply ignoring the closure signs. These people will have an increased risk of illness, if they eat shellfish.

The closure of commercial shellfish growing areas within Dungeness Bay decreases economic potential for the local community. The shellfish closure also results in a loss of harvest opportunity by residents and visitors, due to the official closure of the tidelands at the Dungeness boat ramp and recreational areas within the Dungeness Bay Wildlife Refuge. Finally, high levels of bacteria in the streams, river and bay tarnish the "pristine" reputation of the Dungeness Bay and Dungeness River, which could affect tourism to the area.

Clallam County Health & Human Services
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