“The shellfish industry is like the canaries in the coal mine – without shellfish, you have no baseline to monitor a healthy ecosystem," said Tom Bloomfield, shellfish farm manager at Chelsea Farms on Steamboat Island's Eld Inlet.
Canaries were used to determine the level of dangerous gases in a coal mine. If there was enough oxygen, the bird in the cage lived and the miners mined. If the canary died, then the miners knew to beat it out of there.
Bloomfield made the analogy as part of his testimony in support of t
hree geoduck farming permit applications by Taylor Shellfish Company and Arcadia Point Seafood at a hearing on November 26 at the Thurston County Fairgrounds.
The applications are being recommended for approval by the Thurston County planning department. The hearing was significant because these are the first geoduck aquaculture applications recommended for approval by Thurston County since 2007. (For the story, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com, November 28, 2012, “Proposed Thurston County Geoduck Farming Applications Heard”)
In his testimony, Bloomfield was brief but pointed, explaining his role as a fifth generation shellfish farmer, responding to earlier speakers Susan Macomson and Laura Hendricks, both of whom brought shellfish industry debris. Saying he has spent thousands of hours out on the beach and in boats picking up debris, Bloomfield said it was a frustration that he has never seen Sierra Club members out there doing the same.
In Bloomfield's opinion, the shellfish industry is alive and well: Chelsea Farms is the third largest geoduck shellfish operation in the world, right behind Thurston County’s Seattle Shellfish Company, and Mason County’s Taylor Shellfish Company.
A Day In The Life of Tom Bloomfield, Shellfish Farm Manager
“I studied and received a B.A. in marine biology with an emphasis on fisheries, but then I was a machinist in the aerospace industry, then I was a truck driver…I wanted to get out there first, before I came back.”
His family has deep roots in the area. Bloomfield lent me a book, “The Oyster Was Our World: Life On Oyster Bay, 1898 to 1914,” by Bloomfield's great-great aunt Cora Chase, who farmed Olympia oysters. The beds are now farmed by Taylor Shellfish. The book is available at the Mason County Historical Society.
“Our equipment is unique – we all cut our tubes a little differently, use different colors and diameters, tie off our nets differently…we’re self-policing and deal with it internally…If there’s a problem with someone’s gear, I call them up and say, 'Hey, come pick up your stuff…'" Each shoreline is different and the equipment needs to adapt to that particular environment and stuff can get loose. We don’t want stuff out there – it gives us all a black eye.”
I asked him how much a property owner can earn by leasing out his or her shoreline for development. He said about 10-15% of gross sales. “They don’t see money until harvest, but some receive payments of $1000 per acre per year, like a rent or lease agreement.” That can add up to big bucks.
Bloomfield said that for a long time, he made the same assumption, that geoducks were his cash crop, but, he recently penciled it out and realized that he makes more money, net, per acre, farming oysters than geoducks.
“Oysters mature in one to three years, manila clams mature in two to three years, and like you said, geoducks take the longest. But throw in the cost of labor, equipment, and time, and geoducks cost more.”
Given a shellfish farmer’s hectic schedule that’s dictated by the tides, I thanked Bloomfield for graciously giving me a lengthy personal tour of his operation on Steamboat Island.
“It’s very flattering that people have been so interested the past couple of years in what we do…it’s humbling.” For years, he says his tours have been primarily for Steamboat’s fifth-grade Griffin School students, Thurston County pre-schools and Tumwater’s New Market Skills high school classes.