Clam shells and pebbles crunch underfoot on the shore of the Lummi Nation’s Portage Bay in northwest Washington. At the lowest tides, Lummi fishermen can walk out to harvest clams.
“Usually, it’s during the nighttime,” says 25-year-old Lummi tribal fisherman Lonnie James Jr, who’s been digging clams since he was six. “We go out there with headlights and a rake and a bag and have to dress warm and inch down in the ground, flip flop it over,” he explains. “You’re bent over for five or six hours.”
It’s hard work—but it’s worth it, James says. At Portage Bay, he can make about $10,000 a year to help support his fiancée and three kids. He’s one of about 300 Lummi members who rely on clam-digging as a source of income. But there’s a problem: Since 2014, the Portage Bay shellfish beds have been closed due to high fecal coliform levels. That pollution could have come from leaking septic tanks, from Canada, or from dairy farms.
Cow manure is a big problem in the West. The dairy cows of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho together produce close to 57,000 tons of it every day. That can cause downstream problems like bacterial contamination, nutrient overloads, and algal toxins.
Normally, that leads to conflict. In Yakima, for example, dairy farmers were sued for polluting the water, and the 2015 settlement required them to line their manure-storage lagoons with clay and plastic, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
But, in northwest Washington, things are going differently.
“Nobody wins in courts,” says dairy farmer Larry Stap, who lives about forty miles upstream of the Lummi Reservation. “Going to court is like going to war. Nobody wins; one just loses more than the other.”
That’s why the Portage Bay Partnership was formed. Seven of Whatcom County’s 93 dairy farmers signed on, agreeing to donate money to Lummi fishermen who’ve lost income as well as to shellfish bed enhancement. And they’ll manage manure better on their dairies—for instance, by planting buffers around streams to catch pollutants before they can make it into the water, by spreading manure on fields during the summer, and by installing new storage containers.
Stap says he already has a steel storage tank, which holds 1.5 million gallons of manure.
The idea is to get all the dairy farmers in Whatcom County to make the improvements Larry Stap has already made on his farm. And that’s just a first step: The signatories also hope to sign on more dairy farmers and to address any other sources of pollution.
“That’s our goal: to get those shellfish beds open,” Stap says. “We don’t want people to not be able to harvest, whether it’s shellfish or grass or milk or whatever. We’re all farmers together.”
Back on the Lummi Reservation, Lonnie James Jr. says he’s eager to get back out on Portage Bay—though he knows it will be at least a few years.
“I like to be out there with my friends, you know—not only my friends, but a lot of them are my brothers, my cousins,” he says. “One of the main things I liked about it was getting to hang out with the older guys, got to learn a lot of things from them. … There’s usually 100 people out there, you know, 100 people hanging out, having fun making money.”