Washington farms don’t stop at the water’s edge.
The state’s oldest “crop” – or maybe its first commercial “livestock” – grows in the bays, coves and inlets of the Pacific Ocean and the Puget Sound, opening shells when the tide is in to pull nutrients out of the salty water and closing them tight against predators when the tide is out.
In 1851 – long before the Palouse hills were planted with wheat or the Okanogan Valley with apples – Washington oysters were harvested and shipped off to a waiting market in California, where Gold Rush miners were willing to pay top dollar for the tasty bivalves.
Washington oysters became so popular in the following decades that they were shipped around the country.
And they were so important to the early Washington economy that even before statehood, the territorial legislature allowed residents to own tidal lands where they could grow and harvest oysters and other shellfish. No state did that then, and no other state does it now.
That popularity almost became their undoing. The region’s native oysters were so lucrative that by the start of the 20th century they were almost gone because of overharvesting, hard winters and pollution.
The introduction of hardier, faster-growing species in the early 1900s and continued improvements on growing techniques have brought Washington back to the top of the heap of American oyster production, and intense marketing is opening international markets. Technology provides a boost for most phases of a commercial oyster’s life cycle, from a microscopic bit of fertilized plankton to its appearance on a plate of crushed ice in a restaurant. Oysters are a huge part of the state’s shellfish industry, which ships internationally and relies on workers from around the globe to pump as much as $150 million a year into the state’s economy.
Now the biggest problems facing the state’s oyster crop are human-produced carbon pollution and the threat of global climate change.
Why, then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open – William Shakespeare, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”
With hundreds of small oyster-growing operations, some as small as a few acres, Washington produces more cultivated oysters than any other state in the country, said Julie Horowitz, senior policy adviser on ocean acidification to Gov. Jay Inslee.
But are they farmers?
“They call their babies seed and they plant them,” Horowitz said. “They certainly see themselves as farmers.”
The state’s Department of Agriculture has an aquaculture specialist and shares some responsibilities with the Natural Resources and Ecology departments in improving the shellfish crops.
Just as there are differences in soil that require adjustments in techniques or crops for farmers on land, the shellfish industry is “constantly working at figuring out what grows well, where,” she said.
Washington is trying to expand the area suitable for growing shellfish in the Puget Sound, where a century and a half of sewage from cities, runoff from farms and waste dumped from ships has wiped out many historic beds.
A coalition of state and federal agencies, tribes, conservation groups and industry have combined for the Washington Shellfish Initiative, to reduce pollution and restore some 10,000 acres of tidelands by the end of the decade. At last count, they had opened more than 2,400 acres but are behind the pace to meet their goal.
Just like their land-bound counterparts, oyster farmers are constantly adapting to pests, diseases and a changing environment. Burrowing shrimp can lessen the yields in Willapa Bay. Norovirus hit Hammersley Inlet, causing a recall of oysters from farms in that Mason County waterway.
But the biggest concern for oyster farmers throughout the region is ocean acidification from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can be as quick as it is variable.
“During rush-hour traffic, we see changes in the water chemistry in Elliott Bay,” Horowitz said.
He was a bold man that first ate an oyster. – Jonathan Swift, “Polite Conversation”
Oysters, with various species growing around the world, have been eaten for centuries. They were a staple of coastal Native American diets, considered a delicacy in Asia and an aphrodisiac in ancient Rome.
When white settlers first arrived on the Pacific coast of Washington, they found great reefs of oysters in the water, which they began scooping up and shipping off. Miners during the California gold rush reportedly paid $1 apiece for oysters in San Francisco taverns. While that may seem a bargain compared to what you paid at a fancy oyster bar during that last trip to Seattle, with inflation, a dollar in the 1850s would be worth about $27 today.
Those native oysters were the relatively small Olympia oyster, Ostrea lurida. As demand grew for the small mollusk with a slightly sweet taste, Washington oyster farmers experienced a boom.
One problem with the Olympia oyster was its relatively slow growing process, as it takes about four years to get big enough to harvest. In a few decades, the beds that had grown up over the centuries were depleted, and Washington’s oyster farmers began to go bust.
“By the 1900s, we were pretty much out of oysters,” said Eric Hall, director of clam and oyster farming for the 7,000 acres of tidelands operated by Taylor Shellfish Farms in Willapa Bay.
The industry was saved by what today would be considered an invasive species. Desperate to replenish the beds, farmers tried to transplant an oyster from Europe, Ostrea edulis. It didn’t thrive. In 1905, they brought a species from Japan, Crassostrea gigas, that did.
Known as the Pacific oyster in the United States, or the Japanese or Miyagi oyster elsewhere, it is relatively disease-resistant, hardier, meatier and faster-growing than the Olympia oyster. It quickly took over Washington’s tidal lands and became the staple of the Northwest oyster industry. It’s now grown on the shores of every continent except Antarctica.
“You can plant ’em just about anywhere,” Hall said.
It is unseasonable and unwholesome in all months that have not an R in their name to eat an oyster. – Samuel Butler, “Diet’s Dry Dinner”
Most species of oysters, including those grown on the Washington tidal regions, are hermaphrodites, starting out their lives as males with some switching to females after a year or two. They typically spawn when the water temperature warms in summer months, which may be the basis for the long-held adage to avoid them between May and August.
Submerged, an oyster opens its shell and filters water and nutrients through its gills. When exposed to the air, it closes the shell for protection and can live for hours, even days, under proper conditions.
A female oyster can produce millions of microscopic eggs, fertilize them with sperm emitted from nearby males and eject them into the water.
Some 70 percent of all oysters in Washington are grown in Willapa Bay, a body of water on the state’s southwest coast, fed by the tidal flows of the Pacific Ocean through a narrow opening between the Long Beach peninsula and Cape Shoalwater on the north and freshwater from mainland rivers on the east and south.
“We’re the oyster capital of the world,” Hall said as a small power scow – a flat-decked boat with a lift forward and steering cabin aft, designed and built by Taylor for tending the shellfish farms – zipped across the bay to one of the company’s beds.
Some Washington tidal lands have been owned by the same families for generations, and some operations haven’t changed much over that time, he said. When Hall was named director of Taylor’s operations on the bay four years ago, he was determined to bring the best new techniques from around the world, rejecting any argument that “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
On a sunny morning in October, Hall and one of his managers, Phil Stamp, were headed out to check the coupellas, an innovation imported from France.
Coupellas are 6-inch-diameter plastic discs with a hole in the center, arranged on rods that are stacked on a rack staked in the tidal lands. They are designed to be “landing zones” for fertilized oyster larvae.
Oysters start out their lives in a very vulnerable condition, near the bottom of the maritime food chain, microscopically small and shell-less. After being released by a female oyster in the wild, a fertilized egg can spend weeks moving through the water in a larval stage, until it secretes a substance that cements itself to something hard.
Larvae that reach that stage are called spats and begin pulling carbon and minerals from the water and surrounding environment to form shells. One of their favorite landing spots is the shell of another oyster. Because of that, oyster growers keep large mounds of shells after shucking to provide a starting point for spats. After a few weeks, a spat grows to the point that it’s called a seed.
The old shells with the new seeds are often put in mesh bags that are staked in a tideland, where they grow to maturity.
The coupellas are a different technique. The racks of discs are staked on areas near spawning oysters so the larvae can latch on and begin to grow shells with some protection from predators. As the skiff pulled up to an area of racks at low tide, Hall and Stamp hopped off into the mud to inspect the coupellas they hadn’t seen since the racks had been put out weeks earlier.
“It’s un-fricking-believable,” Stamp said as they examined the discs covered with hundreds of light dots, spats that had adhered and were starting to grow.
In the coming weeks, the racks will be brought ashore to a nearby facility where the spats will get hosed off of the coupellas, grown in nutrients and eventually returned to the bay.
The advantage of the coupellas is that the process produces individual seeds that can be grown into single oysters. Growing multiple seeds on old shells often results in a cluster, which are suitable to be shucked for their meat that is sold in containers. But the greatest demand is for individual oysters, both in restaurants and at home.
Scrooge … secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster. – Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
Although oysters are likely to grow in clusters, advances in technology are geared to growing them individually. Companies like Taylor have hatcheries where oysters spawn, and nurseries where the spats grow.
In nature, an oyster stays put once a spat has adhered itself to something hard. In 21st-century oyster farming, the process may move the young oyster thousands of miles over its lifetime. It might be spawned in a nursery in the Puget Sound and shipped to Hawaii to grow in water where the additional sunshine at certain times of the year grows more algae that provides food for the growing oysters.
It might then be transferred to California for a stint in warm waters and further growth, then back to Washington state to grow into a marketable seed. Eventually it can be placed in Northwest waters to reach a size where it can be harvested, graded and sold to an oyster bar in Seattle or New York, or flash-frozen and shipped to Beijing.
Everything an oyster needs to eat and grow it gets from the water filtered through the shell.
Once they reach a certain size, seeds are often placed in mesh bags staked on the tidelands. For large commercial operations like Taylor, those bags are arranged in rows and suspended above the flats so the ebbing and flowing tides lift and rock the bags, moving the seeds and keeping them separate as they grow. It also puts less of the oyster’s energy into growing a shell and more into growing meat.
Through experiments with the bag placements, the growth period from seed to harvestable oyster can be cut from three years to nine months and can create a nicely rounded bottom shell much desired for the restaurant market. Oysters growing on tidal flats are dredged up by boats when the tide is in and dumped onto decks, carried to shore and shoveled into bins to be trucked to a processing facility. Those growing in bags are harvested by cutting the bag from its frame and bringing it to shore, where the single oysters get their first sort for size and quality.
“The more we innovate, the more people we need,” Hall said. “That’s our biggest challenge – labor.”
Taylor employs about 50 people at its Willapa Bay farms, from longtime residents like manager Stamp, born and raised on the Long Beach peninsula in sight of the water where he works, to immigrants like Roberto Quintana, an expert in genetics and aquaculture from Mexico who operates the Bay Center nursery where larvae grow in large vats of water. Special strains of algae are grown for feed, and the pH and oxygen levels are controlled to mimic the bay where young seeds will be sent for further growth.
“At the end of the day, it’s farming,” said Quintana, who as a youth grew up around farms and idolized Jacques Cousteau.
When God made the oyster, he guaranteed his absolute economic and social security. He built the oyster a house, his shell, to shelter and protect him from his enemies. – Author unknown, from the poem “The Oyster And The Eagle” used in the Eagle Scout ceremony.
In an oyster nursery floating on Oakland Bay northwest of Shelton, Washington, Bill Dewey walked between rows of bins with seeds of various sizes resting on the bottom of each container. A paddle wheel pumped water from the bay through the rows of containers, allowing individual seeds to feed on the nutrients in the bay water while they grow to a size that they can be sent to Taylor plots around the Northwest or sold to other growers.
“The South Sound is one of the best areas in the world for growing shellfish,” Dewey, senior director of public affairs for Taylor, said as he pulled a seed, which looked like a fully formed oyster the size of a thumbnail, from a 3-by-3-foot container.
Along with Pacific oysters, other varieties like Kumamoto, Shigoku and Virginica are grown in the various bays, coves and canals of the Sound, and even some of the original Olympia oysters grow not far from the capital. Then there are the clams, Manila and geoduck, and mussels.
Different varieties of oysters planted in different areas develop distinct flavors from that location. In the growing restaurant market, discriminating oyster lovers can appreciate the differences, much the way an oenophile can seek out a particular vintage from a particular vineyard.
But the Northwest is also on the point of the spear for environmental and ecological challenges the shellfish industry faces. Along with the man-made problems that flow from the land, oysters face even bigger dangers from the air and the sea itself.
Higher levels of carbon dioxide are making the eastern Pacific and the Puget Sound more acidic, and that’s very bad for oysters. To understand why requires a bit of chemistry knowledge:
When carbon dioxide in the air mixes with the salt water of the ocean, it produces a series of chemical reactions. More carbon dioxide in the air means more hydrogen ions and fewer carbonate ions in the water, changing the ocean’s pH level to be slightly less alkaline, or more acidic.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere varies naturally, so marine animals have evolved to tolerate some level of pH change.
The buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide in recent decades – mainly from burning fossil fuels and overcutting forests that pull carbon dioxide from the air and store it – is reducing the carbonate that oyster larvae and other shellfish need to build their shells. When the carbonate level gets low, it’s hard for young shellfish to grow shells; when it gets really low, shells that have already grown can dissolve.
“The global increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from human activity is large enough to reduce seawater (mineral concentrations) by biologically significant amounts,” researchers Jan Newton and Terrie Klinge, of the University of Washington, said in the study “Ocean Acidification in the Pacific Northwest.”
Northwest waters are also colder than much of the ocean and less salty because of all the freshwater that flows in from the Cascades and Olympics. The water in the ocean is not the same from top to bottom, and the deeper water farther from the shore is often full of corrosive substances. When it gets pushed toward the surface areas, a process called upwelling, that also can affect the shellfish.
Upwelling can be cyclical. In 2008-09, it may have changed the carbonate levels at the Taylor nursery in Hood Canal and caused a 75 percent drop in the larvae production, creating a “seed crisis,” Dewey said. Now the nurseries monitor carbonate regularly and can add chemicals to boost levels if they get low.
But carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise at a rate that some projections say could reduce the carbonate concentration in Northwest waters by 50 percent by the end of the 21st century. “That’s a big deal if you’re a shellfish,” he said.
Oysters are so vital to the state economy that Washington has joined an international alliance with Norway, Chile, Portugal, Indonesia and Fiji to fight ocean acidification, with Gov. Jay Inslee focusing attention on the problem, Dewey said.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter/ “You’ve had a pleasant run!/ Shall we be trotting home again?”/ But answer came there none –/ And this was scarcely odd, because/ They’d eaten every one. – Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”
Twenty-five years ago, about 80 percent of Washington’s oyster crop was shucked, preserved and sold in containers, used for stew, stuffing or frying. About 20 percent was sold to be opened individually and eaten on the half shell in restaurants, bars and homes.
“Now that’s reversed,” Dewey said.
Demand is so great that the supply of fresh oysters continues, even in months without an “R.” Through cross-breeding, aquaculturists have developed an oyster that does not spawn in the summertime.
Taylor and other companies in Washington still process and can oysters on a massive scale, with lines of shuckers popping open the shells and depositing the meat in containers.
In a room chilled to 45 degrees, more than a dozen shuckers grabbed oysters from a conveyor belt and with a quick jab and deft strokes separated meat from shell, dropping the former in a container. When their containers get full, they take them to a counter to be washed and graded by size before processing and packaging. The biggest ones go to the Asian countries, or Asian stores in the United States.
All the oysters on the conveyor are from the same farm, in order to track from harvest to table everything that’s sold. When a new shipment from a different farm is delivered, shuckers take a break and the belt is cleaned to avoid mixing batches from different plots.
Shuckers start out at minimum wage, but those who last quickly move to piecework, getting paid by the gallon. A good shucker can deliver as many as 50 gallons a day; it takes about 120 oysters to make a gallon. (For those who struggle with math, that’s roughly 6,000 oysters).
The shucking crew is an international mix – Hispanic, Vietnamese and Cambodian, along with Caucasians, both American-born and immigrants. Hooded and layered against the cold, the racial and ethnic differences are almost indistinguishable until the shucking stops and they walk away from the belt.
In another processing plant down the road, shuckers are opening individual oysters but keeping them in the half shell with their liquid for shipping overseas. This is a trickier process because an opened oyster doesn’t stay fresh and edible long.
These are the top-quality Shigoku and Pacific oysters much in demand nationally and internationally. They are flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen at minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, packed in trays with molded indentations to hold the shells, then boxed and moved to a freezer until they can be shipped in refrigerated containers. They’ll last three to six months, depending on the quality of a restaurant’s freezer, and when thawed and placed on a plate, they will be close to fresh.
Cartons of the flash-frozen oysters awaiting shipment have labels marking them for delivery to New York, Boston, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Farming the oceans and bays presents great opportunities, but also faces great challenges for government, science and the industry to overcome, Dewey said.
If that can happen, “there’s an opportunity to feed the world’s population with aquaculture,” he said.