Kyle Deerkop and his crew can be found weekly patrolling our local beaches for discarded yellow ropes, and other persistent garbage.
Deerkop grew up in Idaho, went to college in Alaska, and has worked with the shellfish industry for 15 years — the last seven with Pacific Seafood in Westport as a Farm Manager.
Deerkop spends his time working on beach clean-ups in part because oyster growers including Pacific Shellfish are required by the Army Corps of Engineers to patrol beaches every two months for debris from shellfish farming. This was increased to weekly beach clean ups after Pacific Shellfish responded quickly to local beachcombers finding numerous discarded fragments of yellow plastic rope.
In 2019, the problem with yellow ropes littering local beaches was brought it to the attention of staff at the Westport Maritime Museum and it was tracked to the shellfish industry. Pacific Shellfish Foods worked with the museum and other partners to find a solution to the problem.
In oyster farming, the “longline method” is used to keep oysters off the estuary bottom and/or ocean floor – and to provide access to food and protection from predators. Seeded oyster shells are spliced at regular intervals into a poly rope which is suspended above the substrate on PVS pipes.
When the oysters are harvested, shells are cured, and piles are recycled for setting larvae during future growing operations. Fragments of rope from these piles
are sometimes released back into estuaries when seed is spread on the beds or shells are used to recruit natural setting Pacific oysters in Willapa Bay.
To help solve the problem with the discarded plastic yellow ropes, in 2020 Pacific Shellfish changed their oyster harvest practice to keep new yellow ropes out of the water/beaches.
Pacific Shellfish engineers created a machine called the Cluster Buster to break apart the oyster shell, after shucking inside the plant, allowing access to the mother shell and rope attached for proper disposal. The company now has shell piles with zero plastic rope debris.
“Pacific Shellfish is a good company, not just saying the right thing, but doing the right thing,” shared Deerkop. “The future of oceans is the future of our business. We have to fish and farm in sustainable ways.”
A second mobile Cluster Buster machine has recently been completed to address legacy rope in oyster pile shells in Grays Harbor and Pacific County. It will be used and shared extensively in 2022.
To date, Deerkop has participated in over 100 beach clean ups from Willapa Farms to Grays Harbor, and his team continues to go out weekly to patrol the beaches.
“Our team has found the beaches are now cleaner than they were just a few years ago,” shared Deerkop.
The beach patrol crew has also learned a lot about which beaches to target, as they have discovered where garbage collects – and where it drifts from overseas – and they follow the king tide lines, and the eelgrass.
In the clean ups, Deerkop and his crew often work in concert with a variety of groups in the stewardship of our local beaches: Grays Harbor Stream Team, Twin Harbors Keepers, Surfriders, the Westport Maritime Museum, and others.
“We all work together to pitch in,” noted Deerkop.
In addition to residual yellow rope, crews also pick up Styrofoam, bicycle helmets, play mats, bottles, tires, and all sorts of other plastic waste, like spent plastic shotgun shells from hunters in the estuary. They want to keep this plastic off the beaches because these plastic pieces are often found in the stomachs of birds like albatross, as the plastic resembles squid that these marine likes to eat.
Deerkop is committed to keeping plastic off the beaches, not just from his own industry, but from other sources. It is recommended that hunters pick up spent shotgun shells, as they are most often ejected nearby from the gun chamber – and to dispose of properly. Another recommendation is to spend a bit more on shotgun shells, as many are now designed to be biodegradable, which means breaking down into water and carbon dioxide.
These microplastics persist in our environment as can absorb pollutants and are small enough to be ingested by worms, mussels, and crabs – and transferred up the food web.
“A section of the highway has been adopted by Pacific Shellfish, so that garbage can be collected before it reaches our rivers, estuaries, and oceans,” added Deerkop.
Deerkop also volunteers as a board member with the Grays Harbor Conservation District, and the Grays Harbor Marine Resources Committee (MRC).
“The work that the Conservation District does is to help landowners implement best practices to keep
environmental and agricultural viability. In my volunteerism with the MRC, I get to collaborate with private landowners as well with industry. I am invested in marine issues as they don’t just impact us as a shellfish industry, these issues impact others – and can bring people together,” said Deerkop.
The Pacific Shellfish crew has also helped with summer invasive European green crab surveys. Green crabs are highly invasive and potentially detrimental to the cultural, recreational, and commercial harvest of local Dungeness crabs, clams, and other shellfish.
When green crab populations get established, this causes eelgrass habitat to collapse. Green crabs can destroy large areas of salt marsh and eelgrass meadows – primarily form their burrowing. Green crabs can dig down 6 inches to eat one clam and can eat 40 1/2-inch clams a day. It is important to act now while green crabs are still a low-level threat, even though their numbers are rapidly increasing.
“In the 10-20 crab pots that we set out last summer, we caught 2,400 crabs,” said Deerkop.
For more information on invasive European green crabs, check out wsg.washington.edu.
In musing about his work to protect the Washington Coast, stewardship, Deerkop said, “my family and I often talk about our legacy, which is to leave our environment better than when we found it… Like our owners (Pacific Shellfish) say, the future of our oceans is the future of our business- the ocean is also the future of our communities.”