Burley Lagoon Geoduck Battle Enters Next Phase

Environmental impact is said to be minor. Opponents disagree and vow to appeal.


The Taylor Shellfish Co. plan to convert part of its existing manila clam and oyster beds in Burley Lagoon to geoduck aquaculture has moved forward. Fourteen months after seeking comments on a draft, Pierce County’s Planning and Public Works Department released the final environmental impact statement January 6.

The statement reviewed three scenarios. The Taylor preferred plan is to replace 25.5 acres of existing clam and oyster beds with geoducks, planted in phases using nursery tubes and predator exclusion netting. The second scenario would allow geoduck aquaculture throughout the proposed 25.5 acres but limit use to 17 acres at a time. The final alternative would be to take no action and to maintain current clam and oyster aquaculture.

The summary of impacts noted that the potential environmental impact of converting the full 25.5 acres would “range from negligible (at the lowest levels of detection, barely measurable, with no perceptible consequences) to minor (a detectable change, but the change would be localized, small, and temporary) in the context of Burley Lagoon as a whole.” The second scenario would have slightly less impact. “With the possible exception of Aesthetics and Recreation, no significant unavoidable adverse impacts were identified.”

The statement incorporated some minor revisions to the original draft, including an additional section on the Purdy Creek Fish Passage Barrier Replacement project located under the State Route 302 spur just south of 144th Street NW, a habitat improvement proposed by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

It documented more than 300 comments made in opposition to the permit together with the county’s responses. Objections included concerns about the impartiality of the process, the short timeframe allowed to comment on the draft statement, the accuracy of the history of shellfish farming in Burley Lagoon, the legality of farming geoducks in the area and the environmental effects on the shoreline.

“Every single comment was dismissed. There was not even any mitigation. I think that’s ridiculous,” said Laura Hendricks, executive director of the Coalition to Save Puget Sound, a group based in Burley that advocates for shoreline protection.

Hendricks said there are a number of environmental concerns, including damage due to harvesting, but her main focus is the use of plastics. Several commentors stated that if all 25 acres were farmed, a million plastic tubes would be used. In its response, the county noted that with the proposed phased patchwork planting, the number of tubes would be about 444,000.

“The material is high density polyethylene, and we know it is toxic, terrible for marine life,” Hendricks said. “I find the state of Washington is closing its eyes as to the destruction this stuff is causing.”

Hendricks also said geoduck farming in the lagoon may be illegal. RCW 79.135.010, passed by the Washington Legislature in 2002, clarified use of Bush-Callow land — subtidal and intertidal shoreline initially set aside for oysters in the 1890s. The new legislation stated that those lands could be used to cultivate clams and shellfish only if they had been planted with those species prior to the end of 2001.

Taylor Shellfish Co. provided a letter from Doug Mcrae written in 2011 stating that he had scatter-planted geoduck seed in Burley Lagoon from a boat, with no exclusion gear, in June 2001 and April 2002. Mcrae, who owned Washington Shellfish at the time, was sued by the county for his shellfish practices (“Business Owner Presents His Case at Hearing,” KP News, Dec. 1, 2003)

“Johnny Appleseeding geoduck seed is not planting,” Hendricks said. “Doug’s declarations all took place long after the supposed seeding took place. There was no verification that he did it.”

“Taylor does our best to be responsible as we farm with our environmental practices and our engagement with the community addressing concerns people raise,” said Bill Dewey, the company’s public affairs director. “This is probably one of the most robust assessments of geoduck culture developed to date. A team of highly qualified consultants conducted an exhaustive science-based review. It took six years to complete and examines all the critical environmental issues including those identified by community outreach.”

Burley Lagoon was first farmed in the 1930s by Tyee Oyster Company. The tidelands were purchased by Western Oyster Properties in 1952. Taylor Shellfish has leased the 300-acre farm from Western since 2012. Since that time, depending on conditions and demand, between 80 and 200 acres of oysters and manilla clams have been under active cultivation.

Taylor first submitted its geoduck proposal in 2014. Pierce County required an environmental impact statement because the proposal was different from other permitted projects, involving more acreage, a relatively enclosed location, and denser surrounding population.

The next steps in the permitting process are public meetings at the Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor Land Use Advisory Commissions. The timing had not been decided by press time, but meetings should be scheduled in the first quarter of 2023, said Michelle Kircher, Pierce County public information specialist.

A public hearing before the Pierce County hearing examiner will follow. The examiner’s decision, subject to appeal, will go to the Washington State Department of Ecology for more public hearings. Its decision will also be subject to appeal.

“Our position is that we will be appealing every decision as high as we can go,” Hendricks said. The appeal will focus on both environmental concerns and whether or not a permit for converting beds from oysters and clams to geoducks is legal.

The environmental impact statement is available for review at the Key Center Library. It is also online with process updates.