BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — Worries about beaches crowded with shellfish farms has spurred Bainbridge Island to enact a temporary moratorium on commercial aquaculture.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council last week put a halt to new aquaculture permits for the next six months. The island has no commercial shellfish operations, and none is planned, but the industry is growing fast in the Puget Sound region.
“We’re worried about mussel rafts offshore and oyster bags as far as the eye can see,” said Maradel Gale, a Bainbridge planning commissioner and environmental activist. “The problem is, that’s habitat, and they’re putting all of that on top of it.”
The six-month prohibition gives the city, state, environmental groups and the shellfish industry time to work out a compromise policy. It does not affect the salmon farm near Fort Ward Park off the island’s south end.
“This moratorium places a line in the sand and preserves the status quo,” City Attorney Lisa Marshall said.
The city recently passed an update to its Shoreline Master Program that would have restricted aquaculture to about 40 percent of the island’s shores. The state Department of Ecology asserted that the city’s rules were too restrictive and required the city to allow aquaculture in all areas not designated as a nature conservancies.
Despite opposition from environmental groups, the city consented to the changes and adopted an SMP with Ecology’s more-permissive aquaculture rules.
In October, Gale and the other members of the Bainbridge Alliance for Puget Sound joined with the Association of Washington Communities and the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat to file a legal challenge of the SMP changes. Their petition for review is set to be heard by the state Growth Management Hearings Board in late May.
The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association was granted a motion to intervene in the review, giving the Olympia-based industry group a limited role in the hearings process.
“A straight-up moratorium or prohibition … goes against what the state has codified, and that’s that shellfish farming is an important part of the Washington state shoreline,” said Margaret Barrette, the PCSGA’s executive director.
The shellfish industry generates about $108 million per year in Washington and is one of the largest employers in Mason County, according to the PCSGA. The industry touts the water-cleansing impact their millions of filter-feeding clams and oysters have on Puget Sound.
The Bainbridge Alliance for Puget Sound has expressed concerns that large-scale shellfish operations damage or remove sensitive eelgrass and other plants that many marine animals depend on for food and habitat. The group also argues that geoduck and oyster farming diminishes the recreational and scenic values of beaches and can dampen shoreline property values.