South Sound Strategy: Shellfish


Attribute(s) Common to this Focus Area

  • Freshwater Quality
  • Benthic Macroinvertebrate Populations
  • Marine Water Quality


Harvesting of shellfish in the South Sound has a long history, beginning with the Squaxin Island Tribe and Nisqually Tribe which continue to rely on shellfish as a source of food and cultural tradition. In the present day, there also are significant recreational harvests and larger-scale commercial production in the South Sound. In additional to economic and cultural benefits from harvest, shellfish — whether harvestable or not — provide significant water quality benefits.

Status Snapshot

Overall, the AHSS aims to expand healthy, productive shellfish populations and shellfish harvest. There are approximately 40,000 acres of commercial and recreational shellfish beds in South Sound, and nearly 80% of these beds are open for harvest (both approved and conditional). However, pollution from stormwater runoff and failing on-site sewage systems impair marine water quality and can lead to frequent harvest restrictions and closures of shellfish beds. These closures are determined by the DOH based on regular marine water samples collected throughout the year. During the sampling, all potential pollution sources that may impact water quality are evaluated. If sampling indicates poor water quality the beach can be closed to shellfish harvest, as the shellfish are not safe to eat. A closed classification for recreational harvesting indicates that water quality does not meet standards for safe consumption of the shellfish. The commercial equivalent of “closed” is “prohibited”. This indicates the presence of contaminants that pose a health risk to shellfish consumers. Both classifications are long-term. Occasionally an event occurs that degrades water quality and creates conditions that make shellfish unsafe for human consumption. When things like floods, sewage spills or other pollution events occur, an emergency closure is imposed on the affected area. This is a temporary closure that remains until water quality returns to previous levels and shellfish have had time to naturally rid themselves of contaminants. Portions of the beaches near the head of Henderson Bay, Nisqually and the eastern shoreline near the cities of Steilacoom, University Place, and Tacoma are closed due to non-point source pollution, such as that from stormwater runoff, failing septic systems, and protective closures around sewage treatment plant outfalls. Shellfish growing areas are monitored for water quality by the Washington State DOH and classified based on monitoring results. If water quality has improved in a shellfish growing area then it has the potential to be upgraded in classification, allowing for greater accessibility.

Key Pressures

  • Housing & Urban Areas (which increase stormwater runoff and are sources of non-point pollution such as from pet waste)
  • Commercial & Industrial Areas, including agricultural and forest lands (which increase stormwater runoff and are sources of non-point pollution)
  • Runoff from Residential and Commercial Lands
  • OSS – Domestic and Commercial Wastewater to On-site Sewage Systems


  1. Maintain all South Sound shellfish areas that are currently approved for harvest (33,691 acres); and
  2. Reopen 703 acres to harvest in Burley Lagoon, Oakland Bay, McLane Cove, Henderson Inlet, Rocky Bay, Vaughn Bay, Filucy Bay, and Nisqually Reach in accordance with SPD recovery plans.
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