DNR approves oyster farm in National Wildlife Refuge. Time to take action.

A Department of Natural Resources head who claims to be an environmentalist has “no knowledge” of her office letting commercial aquaculture invade a National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo of Dungeness Spit by Al Bergstein

Hilary Franz who is the head of the department of natural resources here in Washington state, approved putting a commercial shellfish aquaculture business inside the Dungeness Spit wildlife refuge just to the right in this photo. Up to 80,000 oyster bags covering the bottom. This refuge was created for diving birds and other wildlife that feed here. You and I can’t even fly a kite in there and haven’t been able to for 100 years.

As this author wrote back in 2018:

New concerns over the possible permitting of an oyster aquaculture farm within the Dungeness Spit Wildlife Refuge have been raised by the Department of the Interior, which manages the refuge. In a letter written to Steve Gray, the Clallam County Deputy Director and Planning Manager, Jennifer Brown-Scott, the Project Leader for the Department of the Interior, has raised significant questions about issues concerning the application.

Of concern to the Department are a number of issues relating to wildlife in the refuge. The applicants have asked for permission to place approx. 150,000 (it appears that 80,000 is the current number at most) of “on bottom” oyster bags on the central west side of the bay, in approximately 34 acres of the tide flats 1141 acres of the inner spit. This appears to be approx. 3.35% the inner bay area.  The applicants propose to raise non-native oysters. To be clear, a significant number of cultivated oysters in the Salish Sea are non-native, so this is not a surprise.

Within the area of the Dungeness Spit Wildlife Refuge are federally listed species that are protected or have environmental listings of concern. They include but aren’t limited to: Bull Trout, Marbled Murrelet, Puget Sound Chinook and Hood Canal Summer Chum. Also within the area is significant state listed wildlife habitat. Of somewhat lesser concern is the impact on the public to the scenic beauty of the wildlife preserve, which is one of the main reasons most visitors go to the area in the first place.

Herring also spawn at the west end of Dungeness Harbor and the Department of Interior raised questions about protecting Strait of Juan de Fuca herring, which have been designated “critical” (as in critically low).  Sand Lance and Surf Smelt spawning grounds are also found in the area of the application. These species have been identified as “Washington Species of Greatest Conservation Need within the State Wildlife Action Plan (WDFW 2015). A worry related to this is that these spawning fish will be competing with the oysters for plankton. A failure to find enough food could lead to a significant reduction in the survival rates. There is no know mitigation for this, other than limiting the size and scope of the project.

The area just to the east of the proposed site is the location of the highest infestation of European Green Crabs in the Salish Sea. Another concern is that the proposed oyster bags may provide habitat for green crabs, allowing them to be moved to other areas outside the Spit the bags are transported.

This shoreline has been designated “Natural” in the Critical Areas Ordinance, as far back as 1976. That designation limits activities to those that preserve the national features unchanged. One would assume that the tidelands are also part of that designation.

Noted bird biologist George Divoky commented:

When birds can’t find their food in an area they have used in the past they will not die at that location but fly elsewhere to find suitable habitat. Mortality could occur due to the costs of involved in seeking out that habitat. Certainly, the aquaculture being proposed would modify the habitat used by the birds and all of the far less visible components of the nearshore ecosystem. People tend to focus on birds being affected by anthropogenic changes to the marine environment – since they are visible and warm-blooded vertebrates – but this sort of exploitation of the marine environment by the growth economy would have ecosystem effects.

George Divoky

It is certainly reasonable for the applicants to want to return to aquaculture in the Bay, however the scale is being significantly increased. Science has learned a lot about the environment since the time when the State allowed the use in this location, dating back to around the time of WWII. In many other locations we have decided that the tradeoff of commercial activity is outweighed by a newer appreciation of the value of the natural landscape for a variety of species.  One example of this is that we have ended other bad practices, such as gold mining in salmon streams, which was accomplished not that long ago.

It is up to all of us to question our elected officials and bureaucrats, not the applicants, as to why they believe that this is in all our best interests, when we so clearly have set this aside this location for wildlife protection and enhancement.

What the Dungeness Spit Wildlife Reserve will soon look like. As many as 80,000 of these bags will be located on the bottom.

The head of DNR, Commissioner Franz, when recently asked at a fundraiser for Jefferson County Democratic supporters about her department permitting this controversial site, said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” However, the Department approved it on her letterhead. She also had a direct report of hers send out a response letter to an environmentalist who was expressing their concern in August. The letter stated that “Commissioner Franz has asked that I respond to your concerns on her behalf.

As the old saying goes, “The buck stops here.” Commissioner Franz, in her second term, has run on being an environmental supporter if not an activist. Her campaign web site states” Hilary is on the front lines protecting our lands and waters and standing up for our communities.” A search of her campaign finance contributions showed both the Grantee, along with Pacific Seafood and Taylor Shellfish as donors. That in and of itself seems unseemly, if not worse, to be taking donations from the very people who you are regulating. But we all know it happens all the time. However, her ongoing blanket approvals of the ever-expanding shellfish industry now has apparently been a bit of environmental protection that she does not even pay attention to in her department.

What could she have done instead? Land swap. It’s being done by her department all over the State, where environmentally sensitive areas are being protected. That it wasn’t even a point of discussion is irresponsible.

In a letter to local activists, by Katrina Lassiter, the Interim Deputy Supervisor for Aquatic Resources it was stated that “These measures were created through collaboration and input from scientists, regulatory agencies, and the environmental community including the Audubon Society.”

On 8/20/21, Ms. Lassiter was asked to provide documentation for the statement: She has not responded. No environmental organization that was contacted offered any support for that statement.

Where were the local Audubon Society and Sierra Club members? They both apparently thought it was too controversial and choose to take no action. Why be a member of groups that were created to protect the environment and now can’t even take verbal stand against an action like this? Where is the Washington Environmental Council and their People For Puget Sound Campaigns? Silent. Remember this as you consider your end of the year donations.

Want to put your money where it works? Try starting with the Protect Our Peninsula’s Future, or the Olympic Forest Coalition, or Sea Shepard’s legal fund, or the Wild Fish Conservancy, or the Center for Environmental Law, or any of the other organizations who will sue for change, since we cannot rely on paper “environmentalists” to do the work we expect of them. They all seem to be beholden to the people continuing these policies of destruction. Everyone seems to want to restore destroyed environments but few want to stop them from being destroyed in the first place.

The call to action on your parts, if you choose to take one, is to call Commissioner Franz’ office and let them know your dissatisfaction with this decision. When she comes to your county looking for donations for her future political ambitions, tell her when she reverses this decision, you’ll consider funding her next campaign.

Her number is (360) 902-1000.

5 Responses

  1. Having the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe be the applicant makes this a complex situation. Writing as a person of European ancestry, even if people like me don’t approve, who are we to tell the First Nations people, the original inhabitants here, how they should be managing the land that was taken from them?

    • Understand your concern. First of all, the tidelands of this state do not belong to just the Tribes, they have recognized use areas under Treaty Rights. Their use areas include most of the shoreline in eastern Clallam and Jefferson Counties and beyond. But the tidelands belong to *all* the citizens of our State, including you! I have been very clear in my analysis that this is not about the Tribe, but about a commercial business. The Tribe is doing this to earn money, just like any commercial business. I don’t fault them. But the tidelands are managed for *all* our benefit by DNR, both the Tribes and us who came later. So the possible answer to this was to thank the Tribe for the work they had done helping clean up this area, and offering to trade this protected habitat for other shoreline in the vicinity. Numerous biologists weighed in on this and agreed that this should not have been leased to any business. DNR is in charge of *all* aquatic lands, and could have offered something equivalent. They do that all the time.

      But there was no effort to save this resource. It was traded away for a fistful of dollars. So the answer to those who are outraged by this is to stop funding the political aspirations of the supposed environmentally aware head of DNR. That seems to be the only thing she really cares about. It’s the only thing left as we watch the bags get laid in the reserve.

  2. Thank you, Al. I see this as a call for action on multiple levels. I am not the least bit surprised by the inaction of the organizations you identify however with this approval now in place some may change their minds. Regardless I agree with the strategies you propose and I encourage many more to become involved in a healthy examination of this decision. Actions of all sorts must be taken but it all starts with awareness. Please continue reporting on this matter in detail and often. Thank you.

  3. Al, excellent article, thank you! It is truly appalling what she is doing to the entire environment of the state lands. You mentioned the bigger groups not going after DNR. Little local OFCO is currently a plaintiff against DNR for violating the terms of the state’s mantra “of all the people”. That’s one of two lawsuits we are currently litigating against them. Clearly, Hilary and her department listen more to the ones who feed them the most money: industry! It is so disappointing to see a fellow Democrat bend over backwards to industry while at the same time attempting to placate the base with “girlish” avoidance. I, for one, will never donate another dime to her campaign.

    Connie g *”**For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.**” *Carl Sagan

    On Wed, Nov 24, 2021 at 11:28 AM Olympic Peninsula Environmental News wrote:

    > Al Bergstein posted: ” A Department of Natural Resources head who claims > to be an environmentalist has “no knowledge” of her office letting > commercial aquaculture invade a National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Al > Bergstein Hilary Franz who is the head of the department of” >

    • Connie. Thanks so much for writing this. And yes, your OFCO is another great organization that is worth funding. I have updated the post to add your’s and other orgs web site links. It seems that the only way we can get any attention on this is to publicly call out the issue in blogs like this and hold her accountable. None of the mainstream media appears to want to do that.

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