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Going Green on Whidbey Island

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What I did on my Summer Vacation

August 29th, 2013 at Thu, 29th, 2013 at 9:05 pm by maribeth crandell

This summer I joined the Jefferson County Water Quality team to help collect water samples.  It’s very scientific.  I wear a vest with pockets full of gadgets and take notes in a field notebook.  I carry a small cooler with freeze packs, sample bottles and a telescopic pole which allows me to reach far into a blackberry thicket to get water samples from a tiny trickle off a beach bluff, or extend my reach into deeper salt water. We walk beaches looking for streams and seeps and outfall pipes collecting water samples from any trickle we can find.  We collect samples from popular shellfish and swimming beaches and from sites along fishing streams.   We go out in boats to collect water and algae from the middle of lakes, taking samples from multiple depths in the water column.  All these samples are iced and rushed to a lab. Test results are usually emailed back overnight.

As part of our shellfish program I was assigned to regularly visit a certain rock on a certain beach at low tide to wrestle with certain large mussels.  I wear my quick dry shorts and rubber boots (no socks) because the rock is pretty far out there and the tide is not always quite as low as I would like, but I never failed to get my mussels. I iced these mussels, like the water samples, and send them to the lab.

This kind of sampling is happening all over the State.  The State Department of Health monitors the test results.  They send email alerts telling each county which beaches need caution or closure signs for pollution, harmful bacteria or biotoxins.  When we get these alerts, I drive from one end of the county to another posting signs at boat ramps, parks or clamming beaches.

I’ve learned a lot this summer. Marinas are generally closed to shellfish collection due to pollution. Boaters, please properly dispose of your hazardous wastes.  Visit: to find a pump-out station near you.

Toxic algae blooms in lakes can cause an itchy rash, or if enough is ingested, can kill you, or your dogs, or livestock.

I learned about Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria that causes vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and is usually caused by eating raw oysters or clams collected from warm waters.   This summer there have been Vibrio outbreaks all over Puget Sound.  It’s easy to avoid Vibrio.  When collecting shellfish, ice them immediately and then cook them thoroughly.  If you boil them, wait for the shells to open and then cook 5 minutes longer.  If steaming, let them steam another 8 or 9 minutes after shells open.

I’d heard of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, PSP can kill you. But I found out that ordinary cooking won’t help. Some shellfish hang on to this toxin for weeks, or in the case of Butter Clam, years.  These are microscopic algae.  You can’t tell by looking at it if a shellfish beach is affected.  A reaction to PSP could appear within 30 minutes of ingestion.  Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, burning lips, mouth, tongue, toes, shortness of breath, and a choking feeling. In other words, this is serious stuff.

I had not heard of Diarrheal Shellfish Poisoning, DSP, which can cause… well you can probably guess.  Or Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, ASP, which may cause permanent short term memory loss, brain damage or even death.

So it’s smart to read and heed the signs before you swim, fish or collect shellfish.  They’re the same color as a stop light.  Green means “go”, go right ahead and enjoy!  Yellow means “take precautions” like thoroughly cook your shellfish.  And red means, “stop”, or you could be in serious danger.  Or call the Safe Shellfish Hotline: 1-800-562-5632 before you go. And then thank the State and County Public Health Departments that are working to insure that you have a safer summer.

Maribeth Crandell has a green thumb. Most of the rest of her is "green", as well. She's worked in city, state and national parks as a naturalist, educator and guide, on ships and on shore from the Columbia River to Southeast Alaska. She offers presentations for 6 year olds to seniors. She publishes articles, sings songs, plays the banjo and hikes trails. In fact, in 2006 she hiked the 2,000 mile long Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. She's been an educator for many organizations on Whidbey Island and for 5 years worked as the Environmental Educator for the City of Oak Harbor. She's been a consistent voice on Whidbey Island leading the way toward sustainability. Because Maribeth has a green thumb, along with the rest of her.

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