FIVE YEARS AGO, Chris Burns wandered the tidelands of Sequim Bay, searching for remnants of the native Olympia oysters that once carpeted shorelines throughout the Pacific Northwest. He found a few dozen individuals, scattered survivors hanging on against the odds.
Today, tens of thousands of their descendants dot the bay bottom like small, brown nuggets — hard to spot at first, then impossible to miss.
“It’s like hunting mushrooms,” says Burns, traversing the muddy expanse on a summer low tide. “Once you get an eye for them, you can see them everywhere.”
He plunges his hand into the soup and pulls up a knot of oysters the size of a cantaloupe, dripping and welded together. “That’s the kind of cluster we want,” he says. “Not only are they spreading everywhere; they’re also healthy.”
Burns is a natural resources technician for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which is part of a loose coalition of tribes, agencies, conservation groups and volunteers working to bring back a creature that faded from the collective consciousness so long ago, most people don’t even know it’s missing.
After all, there’s no shortage of oysters in Washington. The state leads the nation in production of the tasty mollusks, a staple on restaurant menus from Seattle to Sekiu. Those who prefer to forage can find them in abundance on many beaches.
But the oysters that dominate our modern world aren’t originally from around here. They’re Japanese imports with a scientific name — Crassostrea gigas — that means giant. Growers introduced the hearty species, colloquially known as Pacific oysters, in the early 1900s to revive an industry staggering from the combined insults of pollution and overharvesting.
BEFORE THAT, the bays, estuaries and inlets of the Pacific Northwest were populated exclusively by Ostrea lurida, or Olys, the only oyster native to the West Coast of the United States and Canada. From Alaska to Baja, the diminutive bivalves evolved in sync with ecosystems forged more than 10,000 years ago by retreating glaciers. The mollusks helped filter the water and anchor a food web that supported a seemingly limitless bounty of crabs, salmon, eagles and orcas. Their reefs gave structure to the tidelands and created habitat and hiding places for other creatures. Native peoples built camps and villages near oyster beds and feasted on them for millennia. White settlers relished the oysters, too — until they nearly obliterated them.
When the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife adopted a restoration strategy in 1998, the species that once flourished on more than a quarter of Puget Sound’s intertidal zones — as much as 20,000 acres — was reduced to less than 5% of that area.
The state’s proposal didn’t come with any money, but it coincided with the formation of a small nonprofit whose name reflects its ambitious goal: The Puget Sound Restoration Fund. The group’s energetic leader, Betsy Peabody, embraced the oyster challenge, forging collaborations and mapping out a plan to reestablish self-sustaining populations across 100 acres by 2020.
They might not hit that target, but they’re getting close.
The tally stands at 67 acres, including 10 acres in Port Gamble Bay, a large swath of Dyes Inlet north of Bremerton and the 1.5-acre patch in Sequim Bay. The team hopes to add 15 acres this year, then more as funding allows. Peabody and her allies have honed their techniques over the past two decades, building a hatchery that churns out 4 million baby oysters a year and learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. Their successes are a model for similar efforts along the West Coast.
While the focus is on weaving native oysters back into the natural tapestry from which they were erased, that doesn’t mean the efforts won’t also help put Olys back on the menu someday. Ecological and gastronomic goals could eventually intersect, giving more people a chance to experience a forgotten part of our culinary heritage.
“There are so many dimensions to the Olympia oyster story,” Peabody says. “We have this wonderful opportunity to rebuild a native oyster, and it’s very doable.”
THE STORY OF Sequim Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula, closely tracks that of native oysters.
Last year, the tribe unearthed ancient cook pits and refuse piles crammed with oyster shells that date back more than 1,000 years. “Our ancestors depended on seafood for their existence,” says Jamestown S’Klallam elder Marlin Holden, who until recently ran a small shellfish farm growing clams and Pacific oysters for local restaurants.
When settlers started arriving in the mid-1800s, they forced meandering streams into irrigation ditches, leveled forests, and built a lumber mill and clam cannery on the shore. Sediment from denuded slopes poured into the water, burying oyster beds under layers of goo. For decades, the estuary was used as a floating log yard.
“This whole bay was just full of crap,” Holden recalls.
The 1849 California Gold Rush took a heavy toll on oyster beds. Hangtown fry, a scramble of oysters, eggs and bacon, was a favorite in San Francisco. Lucky strikes demanded celebrations, and the price for Olys in saloons soared as high as a dollar apiece.
California’s bays were quickly stripped bare. Willapa Bay, on the Washington coast, was next. By the late 1800s, oyster reefs across Puget Sound were nearly exhausted. Oystermen started diking tidelands and cultivating the precious bivalves like a crop — and for a while, they prospered. The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle featured a scale model of oyster beds and processing plants.
Then, in 1927, a sulfite pulp mill opened near Shelton, pumping out toxic effluent that spread throughout South Puget Sound. One oyster bed after another crashed, and the industry based on Ostrea lurida never recovered.
But Olympia oysters were never entirely wiped out, either. As environmental regulations stemmed the worst pollution, water quality improved. Places like Sequim Bay were cleaned up, and the stage was set for a possible comeback.
ON THIS BREEZY afternoon, Burns and his crew are wrangling 3-foot-long mesh bags that look like giant sausages stuffed with Pacific oyster shell. They rip the bags with knives and fling the shell across the tide flats. The idea is to give baby oysters, called seed, something to settle on in an area where there’s still a lot of mud and no big reefs to serve as a foothold, Burns explains.
Adding shell is one of several techniques the Puget Sound Restoration Fund developed to boost oyster populations. In places with enough naturally spawning Olys, that might be all it takes to trigger a rebound. Places like Sequim Bay, where remnant populations were tiny, call for more intensive intervention.
The first step is collecting a small batch of adults, as Burns did five years ago. Called broodstock, the oysters are coaxed into spawning at a special hatchery near Poulsbo. The larvae are fattened on algae, then incubated in hot-tub-sized tanks filled with bags of Pacific oyster shell to settle on. As the babies grow, they dot the white shell like brown freckles.
These freckled shells — called seeded cultch — are trucked back to their natal tidelands to help kick-start the population.
Burns made that trip again this summer to fetch the offspring of broodstock collected on a freezing night last December, when the wind threatened to knock the workers off their feet. The bags of seeded cultch now rest on pallets on the bottom of the bay, where they will spend several months — a process called hardening that allows the babies to acclimate and helps protect them from predators like starfish and oyster drills. In the spring, Burns and his colleagues will cut open the bags, spread the cultch — and hope for the best.
But the broodstock, its mission complete, is ready to go back to the wild today, Burns explains. “These are the parents of the seed,” he says, flinging oysters across the tideflats like chicken feed. “The whole family is here.”
THE HATCHERY ON Clam Bay was built by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is operated by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund with support from multiple tribes, agencies and private donors — an example of the unusual partnerships propelling restoration. It took a while to figure out the best methods for raising baby Olys, says hatchery research manager Ryan Crim, who knows more about the species’ preferences than almost anyone else.
“They are kind of unique in the oyster world,” he says, pointing out trays where the broodstock do their business. Most oysters release eggs and sperm into the water and leave the rest to chance. O. lurida females shelter the microscopic young inside their mantle cavities for a couple of weeks.
The species is genetically diverse, with variations between Puget Sound’s multiple basins. To maintain that diversity, managers always use broodstock from the region where a batch of seed will be planted. “We want these larvae we produce to look and behave like wild populations,” Crim says.
Olys are picky about where they live, preferring slack water and areas fed by creeks and streams. They like to stay wet, and generally cluster lower on the beach than the larger Pacific oysters — a sign that the two species might be able to coexist well. Olys also form flatter, more-shingled reefs than the crenelated structures typical of Pacific oysters.
State biologists selected 19 priority restoration areas around Washington — from Drayton Harbor near the Canadian border, to Budd Inlet near Olympia — by searching through old reports and records from archaeological digs to find out where the oysters used to be most abundant.
“The best places to start are the places they existed prior to European contact,” says Marco Hatch, an ecologist at Western Washington University and member of the Samish Indian Nation.
ONE OF THE biggest successes so far is Fidalgo Bay near Anacortes. Despite two oil refineries on the horizon and a railroad trestle bisecting the inlet, Olympia oysters seem to be happy as clams. “You might say we started with nothing, and we’ve got about 3 million oysters in the bay now,” says Paul Dinnel, a retired Western Washington University biologist and project manager for the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee. With a little bit of federal money and a corps of enthusiastic volunteers, the group has been at it for 15 years, along with the Samish Indian Nation.
All those oysters are paying ecological dividends as they filter the water in search of food and offer refuge to smaller creatures that dart and dwell between the shells. “We’ve got amphipods and juvenile salmon, juvenile crabs and shrimp, and a lot of little fish and blue herons,” Dinnel says. There are fewer nasty algae blooms because the oysters consume the single-celled plants.
In Dogfish Bay, near Poulsbo, the density of native oysters doubled between 2013 and 2017, to 165 per square meter — far higher than the original target of 75. That’s enough animals to filter the entire volume of the bay each time it turns over, about every 25 days.
“The resurgence of native oysters at some sites … is just tremendous,” says Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish biologist Brady Blake, who co-authored the state’s rebuilding plan. But the key to long-term success will be oyster populations robust enough to sustain themselves without any human help, he cautions.
One of the newest, most surprising restoration projects sits in the heart of Seattle’s waterfront, hard by the terminal where massive cruise ships dock. Called Smith Cove, the small inlet is not among the native oyster priority areas. But as part of an effort to mitigate carbon emissions and improve water quality and habitat by planting kelp and eelgrass, the Port of Seattle also scattered 6,000 pounds of seeded cultch last fall. The baby oysters seem to be doing well, so the port plans to repeat the process next spring.
Groups that would like to see native oysters return all along the West Coast are paying attention. “Folks in Washington are the pioneers, and we are very much following in their footsteps,” says April Ridlon, of the recently formed Native Olympia Oyster Collaborative based in California. Ridlon is compiling information on 39 restoration projects in Canada, the United States and Mexico, with the goal of sharing information and identifying the best approaches.
In Sequim Bay, Burns isn’t ready to declare victory, despite promising results so far. No one knows how the native oysters will fare as climate changes. Some research suggests Olys might be more resilient to ocean acidification than nonnatives, but other studies point to greater sensitivity to warming temperatures.
“This beach is going to constantly change,” Burns says, heading back to shore as the tide begins to cover the oyster shell, broodstock and bags of seeded cultch. “Come back in 50 years, and then we’ll call it a success.”
WASHINGTON’S 2.5-INCH minimum for recreationally harvested oysters protects most Olys, which range from the size of a silver dollar to 3 inches across — about a third the size of a Pacific oyster. But it’s still possible to slurp them in season at Elliott’s Oyster House, Taylor Shellfish Farms’ oyster bars and a few other spots.
“They’re a legacy for us,” says Tim McMillin, general manager of Olympia Oyster Company in Shelton, which got its start with Olys in 1878. The company is one of a handful that still grows the natives, but they account for less than 1% of production these days. Olys are slow-growing and expensive, and their small size makes some customers grumble, he says. The taste, often described as coppery, is not for everyone. McMillin thinks they’re delicious, hands-down the best cocktail oyster. But he’s not buying media reports that keep forecasting a commercial resurgence.
“I’ve been hearing that for 60 years.”
So why did Gary Fleener, an ecologist for Hog Island Oyster Company, one of California’s premier growers, recently tour the hatchery on Clam Bay? The company is cultivating small batches of Olympia oysters on an experimental basis, he explains. While they’ll never replace Pacifics and other market leaders, Fleener envisions native oysters as part of a culinary, cultural and historic experience tailored to educated foodies. He also believes growers actually could contribute to the wild population’s recovery, because cultivated oysters also spawn and release larvae into the water. “That’s probably the sweet spot between small-scale oyster farming for the market and ecological restoration,” he says.
Holden, the Jamestown S’Klallam elder, harbors his own dream for the future of the oysters that nourished his ancestors for so long. Why not welcome visitors with a tour that tells the story of the land and the tribe, capped off with a dinner featuring native oysters and other traditional foods?
“It could be a big hit, or it could be a big flop,” he says with a smile. “But either way, for us it would be a great, great thing if we can bring them back.”