A God Among Oysters

The tiny bivalve with a huge local impact


Like your first kiss or first drink, you remember your first oyster. The slippery sliminess, the unmistakeable taste of the sea, the thrill of eating something alive. If you hated it, you remember the revulsion. If you loved it, you remember the revelation. Either way, the oyster belongs to that rarified school of sensations that defy imagination; they must be experienced to be understood.

The Olympia was Washington State’s first oyster. It is the only oyster native to the Pacific west coast, the food that sustained native tribes for millennia, the briny treat that delighted the first pioneers. But the plentiful Olympia population that once blanketed the coast from British Columbia to the Baja Peninsula has dwindled to a fraction of what it once was—it’s estimated that less than four percent of historic core populations remain. This is entirely due to human intervention over the past 150 years, a sad tale of over-harvesting, habitat loss, corporate pollution and shifting market demand.

Though rumors of the Olympia’s demise have been whispered for decades, theirs is not a story that necessarily ends in tragedy. The past ten years have seen a growing interest in restoring native oyster populations to their former glory, an effort led by non-profits like the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, shellfish farmers like Taylor Shellfish, and everyday citizens who volunteer to grow their own oyster gardens on privately-owned tidelands and docks. These good folks aren’t lamenting the past so much as working towards a better future.

So what, exactly, makes this tiny oyster so important? We live in an era of unprecedented choice when it comes to shellfish; any good oyster bar has a dozen varieties plucked from our local waters. Olys (as they’re known colloquially) are tricky and temperamental, take up to five years to reach market size and yield very little meat when they do—it takes 2,000 to make a gallon, whereas imports like the Pacific take only 200. But as the only oyster native to our waters, Olys have a caché that goes beyond mere sentimentality. Unlocking the secrets of the Olympia oyster could reveal other answers to Puget Sound restoration, and it’s this mystery that keeps the marine biologists and environmentalists at their work.

Oysters play an integral role in the ecosystems of estuaries and tidal flats. They get their nutrients by filtering the water around them for phytoplankton, thus keeping the water clean. Oysters stick to the same habitat over generations, and the calcified shells of the ancients creates an infrastructure that houses small fish, invertebrates and sea worms, which in turn feed young salmon and other sea creatures. Like most things in the natural world, it’s a delicate environmental balance, borne out of centuries of evolution.

The same characteristics that make oysters such rock stars also make them more susceptible to environmental changes. Oysters start life as tiny floating larvae, victims of the tides until they find a comfy spot to attach and live out the remainder of their lives. The larvae are partial to old oyster beds as their final resting place (a sure sign that the location has been a good habitat in the past), and when those shells are taken away—as when whole oysters have been harvested for half-shell consumption across the country—it becomes exponentially harder for new generations to gain a foothold. And because oysters are natural water filters, if the water is polluted—either by man-made chemicals or silt runoff from upstream activity in nearby rivers—they take in the bad with the good. The bad kills them quickly, essentially changing their diet from 8 to 12 gallons of water a day to the same amount of poison.

Archaeological records show that Olympia oysters have flourished naturally on the Pacific west coast for thousands of years. Native tribes lived on Olympia oysters for generations; we know this from oral histories and midden piles of discarded shells as large as football fields. Tribes situated their villages near oyster beds and would simply harvest their dinner when the tide was out. When the beds were depleted, the tribe knew to move their village down the coast to another bed for a few years and give the original time to replenish.

Early European settlers and pioneers presented no real threat to the native oyster population. George Vancouver’s expedition in 1792 reported that the shores of Discovery Bay were “plentifully strewn” with them—until1848, the year gold was discovered in California. In a year the population of San Francisco swelled from 1,000 to 25,000 residents, many of them from the East Coast who carried with them the tradition of celebrating success with oysters and champagne. A plate of oysters could go for as much as $20 ($400 today) in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, and savvy entrepreneurs turned their attention to the value hidden in the bay’s natural oyster beds instead of the nearby hills. San Francisco Bay, Humbolt Bay and Yaquina Bay’s native oyster populations were decimated in short order to feed the city’s growing demand. The mother lode, oyster-carpeted Willapa Bay, held on until the 1870s.

South Puget Sound was the last holdout and initially spared from the appetites of prospectors because it was out of the way across dense forests and treacherous mountains, and shipping the delicate Olys proved futile. But the tall evergreens soon attracted the attention of lumber-hungry homesteaders, and the region was well settled by the late nineteenth century. Seafood soon surpassed lumber as one of the region’s biggest exports and was marketed as such—hence the name Olympia oysters—but this time shellfish famers had developed a system of rudimentary dykes and farming techniques that kept over-harvesting at bay.

Alas, lumber proved to be the final nail in the coffin: in 1927 the paper mill in Shelton opened, began leaking untreated sulfite waste liquid into Puget Sound, and promptly killed most of the local oyster population. Fortunately for the economy, the Japanese Pacific oyster surprised everyone by flourishing in the Sound’s icy waters and seemed impervious to pollution. Unfortunately for the Olympia, by the time the Shelton paper mill closed in 1957 and water quality improved, Pacifics ran the show. Only a handful of family-owned shellfish farmers continued to breed Olys in the old way, following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and keeping the tradition alive.

That was the sad state of affairs for the Olympia oyster for nearly 50 years, but over the past decade national and global attention toward restoring shellfish reefs has brought renewed local interest in saving our own. A 2009 report by the Nature Conservancy estimated that 85% of global marine shellfish beds have been lost, making them the most imperiled marine ecosystem on the planet, more so than coral reefs. This startling statistic got people’s attention, coupled with a growing awareness of “dead zones” in important marine habitats like Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, leading local folks to take action before we see the same scene played out in Puget Sound.

Restoration is a long-term process, but the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a non-profit that works with government agencies, tribal leaders, conservationists, academics, shellfish farmers and private citizens, has a clear goal in mind: restoring 100 acres of historic core oyster beds in Puget Sound in the next 10 years. This ambitious battle to take back our waters is being fought on two fronts. The first is rebuilding struggling shellfish beds by creating an underlayer of shells to revitalize the larvae population—literally coating the tidal flats with thousands of oyster shells in hopes that they will encourage spawning. The second is producing new seed with plenty of genetic persity, essentially starting new populations from scratch in places where shellfish thrived in the past. Neither method is easy, but they are effective: More than 30 acres of shellfish beds have been restored since the PSRF was founded in 1997.

Additional projects are in the works. The PSRF is working with Elliott’s Oyster House and other local restaurants to create a shellfish recycling program, which will keep valuable shells out of landfills and put them back into the tidal flats where they belong. The PSRF is also working with private citizens and historical records to identify out-of-the-way nooks and crannies where oysters once thrived, in order to better target strategic areas to rebuild in the future. The future of the Oly might not be rosy at the present moment, but it’s far from bleak.

One last thing to consider, and one of the most important: the taste. Connoisseurs consider Olympias gods among oysters; the flavor is coppery and deep, conjuring up an ephemeral connection to the land and the culture that dates back thousands of years. To slurp an Olympia is to take in the water of Puget Sound and experience the same sensations as a native tribesman five hundred years ago; as a weary pioneer who had never tasted the ocean’s bounty; as a lucky Gold Rush prospector celebrating his unbelievable fortune. It’s a taste we need to preserve for future generations, so they can experience the same sense of where they came from and understand that importance can sometimes come in a tiny package.

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Anna Roth is a food writer and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food from San Diego to the Canadian Border. She blogs sporadically at annaroth.tumblr.com.

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