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The Next Generation Radio Fellowship is a week-long digital journalism training project designed to give competitively selected participants, who are interested in radio and journalism, the skills and opportunity to report and produce their own multimedia stories. This project for early-career fellows was produced at KUOW in Seattle in April 2017.

In Puget Sound, Water Quality Is Measured In A Salty, Smoky Package

Micaela Rodriguez
Brian Allen assembles a shell stack, or ''spat collector,'' on the porch of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund headquarters on Bainbridge Island. He's been monitoring the Olympia oyster since the early 2000s.

Ecologists and volunteers are busy in Bainbridge making “shell posts:” Oyster shells with holes drilled in them, stacked on each other on a wooden dowel. The Puget Sound Restoration Fund makes the posts and gives them away to be placed in the Sound at the beginning of summer and picked up at the end.

People are moving to Western Washington in droves and that’s putting the Puget Sound in danger. Stormwater runoff and industrial agriculture are contributing to the pollution found in the Sound.

Water standards are a moving target and funding to monitor quality is sparse. The future of the Puget Sound rests on precarious circumstances.

If President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts are approved on Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency will lose 56 programs and 25 percent of its employees, according to the Washington Post. That includes slashing federal funding for Puget Sound projects by 93 percent—decreasing the budget from $28 million to $2 million.

Regardless, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund has a deadline approaching. They have dozens of shell stacks to build. They are simple wooden dowels each fitted with 11 carefully selected oyster shells.

“It takes a little bit of work to get the right kind of oyster shell that we use for this process,” PSRF ecologist Brian Allen said. “We get ‘em cleaned up, we drill a hole in ‘em so they can fit on our wooden dowels.”

Once assembled, the shell stacks are sent to partner organizations across the Puget Sound, like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, to be deployed into the water in early summer and recovered in late August. So Allen needs to finish his stack before water temperatures are warm enough for oysters to spawn.

“We have to be able to know that what we’re looking at under the microscope is from the current season,” he said.

When they are collected at the end of August, Allen will count new growths, or the “spat,” attached to the shells to compare to past years.

If Allen and his colleagues miss a year of measuring the number of oysters, they will have an incomplete sequence. They’ve been collecting this data for three years in order to understand year-to-year oyster growth.

Using the metal brush he scrapes until the oysters are smooth and shiny on the inside. Oysters are calcifiers; they build their shells using calcium carbonate. They like to attach to smooth surfaces, where they can become dense, layered structures—shell stacks of oysters upon oysters.

Allen is hoping to maintain the manpower to keep building, deploying and recovering shell stacks for years to come. Counting spat is the most effective way to monitor the growth of the oyster’s population.

“It’s intended not so much to be valuable information from any given year, but if you string together a decade, or two decades worth of information, that has some real ecological value,” Allen said.

The work can be monotonous, but it pays off in the long run.

“Funding is sort of here and there for the effort,” he explains. “It’s something that we’d like to keep going.”

Inside headquarters, on the top floor of a two-story weathered, white house, Betsy Peabody, one of the founders and current executive director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, has considered the impacts of the federal cuts, too. She doesn’t seem discouraged.

“We can weather the waxing and waning of resources,” Peabody said. “We need to make a compelling case for Puget Sound recovery, building a broad base of support, articulating why it is important, and carrying on with the important work of recovery, regardless.”

Credit Micaela Rodriguez / NextGenRadio
Betsy Peabody, one of the founders and current executive director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, works in her office as shell stacks are assembled downstairs.

Peabody has been in the restoration game for awhile. In fact, she’s got a deadline of her own approaching. PSRF is celebrating two decades of work and she’s got a skirt covered in oyster shells to prove it.

“It’s our 20th anniversary bash,” she said. “We’re gathering lots of people that have supported the organization over the years, and we’re going to prepare a big feast.”

And yes, oysters will be served.

In addition to efforts to rebuild the Olympia oyster population, PSRF has been working to restore pinto abalone, the only abalone native to Washington. They are also planting bull and sugar kelp in an attempt to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification, among other projects dedicated to reaching and maintaining state-mandated water quality standards. They are aiming to restore 10,800 acres of shellfish growing areas by 2020.

After the party, it will be back to shell stacking. Peabody is hopeful, but realistic.

“This is one of those recovery goals where you make two steps forward and one step back,” she said. “You never achieve an upgrade of a shellfish growing area and have it become a permanent thing. There’s no such thing as permanence in the water quality game.”