PAT NEAL: A fouled future for nature

Thank you for reading this.

After reading about my ill-fated clam dig at Discovery Bay, where the clams and oysters were all dead, people sent stories about mysterious die-offs of sea life in Discovery Bay with documents and pictures of sick or dying crab, fish, birds and sea mammals that paint a picture of an environmental disaster paved with good intentions.

Finding dead oysters and clams on a beach covered with a mysterious algae, where even the barnacles died, we wandered to a sign that proudly proclaimed, “From a Poisonous Past to a Flourishing Future.”

The sign depicts the complex web of life of the Snow Creek estuary.

Everything from clams to eagles to salmon restored courtesy of the salmon restoration industry.

Underneath the big sign, a smaller sign warns of toxic shellfish.

How could that be in an area they just spent somewhere north of $10 million restoring?

We walked out to the estuary to find out.

Bad idea.

The water was a strange color. The air smelled like chemicals.

The estuary was covered with anaerobic black muck, with a white scum of sulphur-loving bacteria covering a garish orange iron precipitate just beneath the surface. All part of a chemical reaction of toxic wood waste with fresh and salt water leaching sulphuric acid and metals into the water.

With the air, land and water polluted, it was not a healthy place to be.

A sign warned the estuary was dangerous, but it didn’t say why. I was afraid my boots would melt.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that, in 2016, a year after the restoration effort, an oyster farm 2 miles away that had been operating for 25 years suffered a catastrophic failure.

Strange plumes of metallic-colored water were seen drifting through the bay.

Independent analysis determined the plumes were full of aluminum, barium, copper, zinc and iron.

The oysters were deformed, brittle and stained yellow, orange and black.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that, in 2016, an estimated 3.5 million fish, mostly herring, perch and young Coho salmon, suddenly died in Discovery Bay.

The survivors swam slowly near the surface where they were picked up by birds. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, was blamed for the die-off, but such an event had never previously been heard of in Discovery Bay.

The fish were never tested for toxicity.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that same July between 500 and 600 dead rhinoceros auklets were found on or around Protection Island off the mouth of Discovery Bay.

The auklets are a small stocky sea bird similar to a puffin. They feed on fish.

Their breeding colony on the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge suffered a 50 percent loss of fledglings.

Individual birds were observed sitting on the beach, vomiting.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Coho run up Snow Creek, at the head of the bay, crashed from a high of 4,500 fish in 2014 to less than 500 fish in 2018.

Maybe it’s another coincidence that red rock crab crawl out of the water to die, while shoals of dead juvenile Dungeness crab wash up on the beach.

And all I wanted was some clams and oysters, but I was 100 years too late.

These days, if you fail to fill in your clam hole or take an oyster in the shell off the beach, you’ll get a $100 fine. If you kill every oyster and clam on the beach, you get a million-dollar grant.

Despite or because of this restoration effort, we’ve gone from a poisonous past to a fouled future.

I hope someone is studying the problem.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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