The issue of geoduck aquaculture is back front and center on the Key Peninsula.

Geoduck farming elicits strong feelings. Neighbors are concerned about aesthetics, debris and noise. Environmentalists raise concerns about the effects on water, biodiversity and beach structure. Those in the industry note that shellfish farming has been a highly renewable crop that benefits the economy.

Taylor Shellfish has applied for a permit to establish a geoduck farm on the west shoreline of the Key Peninsula and east shoreline of Case Inlet, approximately ¾ mile south of Dutchers Cove, leasing 11 acres of tideland from the Haley family.

On Aug. 19 Pierce County convened a meeting, coordinating with the Key Peninsula Land Use Advisory Commission (KPAC) to review the Taylor permit. Approximately 15 community members, 26th Legislative District Rep. Larry Seaquist, members of the KPAC and a representative from Taylor attended.

Ty Booth, senior planner for Pierce County, provided extensive materials that summarized the proposal, Washington state environmental codes and the Pierce County Master Shoreline Program as they pertained to the proposal and recommendations by the county staff.

Diane Cooper, representing Taylor Shellfish, noted that her company has won recognition for work in sustainable aquaculture and that it has been in business for 15 years, employing as many as 600 workers.

New technology allows use of mesh tubes rather than the solid plastic tubes used to protect young geoducks from predators for the first 12 to 24 months, she said. These tubes are less likely to be washed free by currents and storms, do not require netting to be banded on top of the tubes and are less visible from the shore. They are removed once the clams dig deep enough to be safe from predators. Cooper described the harvesting by wands as necessarily gentle to assure that the clams are not harmed prior to sale.

The public will not be prohibited from the beach, according to Cooper. The farm would be accessed from the water.

During public testimony, several citizens expressed concern about the aesthetics of aquaculture and the noise involved in harvesting. Residents from Burley Lagoon, with a longstanding oyster and manila farm, described a loss of diversity on their beach and fewer sea birds.

One resident noted that prior to planting clams, sand dollars were not gently moved to a nearby location but rather raked in a pile to the top of the beach, where they would not survive. Another citizen asked what the tax and financial benefit to the county might be for this type of enterprise, questioning whether it is worth the environmental risk.

Seaquist noted that he has sponsored research related to Puget Sounds capacity for aquaculture and its adaptation in light of the rapidly changing industry. A conference is scheduled in Olympia to assess how to direct the study.

After clarifying questions, the KPAC voted five to two to approve the permit as recommended by the county. One member abstained.

“I remain concerned about the environmental impact of planting of 45,000 clams per acre –– far more than occur in nature –– and the loss of diversity on this currently pristine beach,” said Don Swensen, who voted against the approval.

Marcia Harris, who voted yes, said, “I am assured, after reviewing the prepared materials and hearing the testimony, that the plan submitted by Taylor complied with all the parameters outlined in the Pierce County Comprehensive Plan, the KP Comprehensive Plan, the staff evaluation of the Shoreline Management Plan and the expressed environmental concerns.”

In a two-day hearing in September, the Pierce County hearing examiner, who makes the final decision, reviewed both the development permit and the environmental appeals. Taylor Shellfish and the Coalition to Save Puget Sound presented testimony. At press time, a final decision was expected at the end of October.

The final county decision will be sent to the Washington State Department of Ecology for review. An additional appeal can be made regarding the county decision to the state Shorelines Hearings Board (the last two geoduck permits approved by Pierce County were appealed — one was approved and the other was denied, largely because of the presence of eelgrass on the proposed site).

Editors note: The KP News plans a series of articles about geoduck farming in Puget Sound, covering the history, environmental and economic issues.  [UPDATE: you can read those articles here: Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4]

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