The Olympia oyster, a tasty and nearly extinct little morsel

By Judith Blake, Seattle Times staff reporter
Northwest Life, January 29, 2003

HOOD CANAL — For a prized seafood delicacy, the infant Olympia oyster just hauled from the water for a growth check doesn't look like much — a tiny blob of life clinging to another creature's empty shell.

But when someone says so, Betsy Peabody, knee-deep in water to inspect the mini-mollusk, leaps to its defense.

"We're proud of that blob!" she says, her voice blending passion and humor — both useful in her drive to restore Washington's only native oyster, the delectable Olympia, to something approaching its former abundance. She's executive director of the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a leading force in that push.

Peabody is wading, hip-booted, in the estuary of the Skokomish River at the southernmost bend of Hood Canal on a rare sort of winter day: clear and sunny, the canal's glassy surface mirroring the dazzling white of the Olympic Mountains.

She and Eric Sparkman, a marine biologist for the Skokomish Indian Tribe, haven't come for the scenery, but to check on the progress of juvenile Olympia oysters planted here last fall, in hopes they'll thrive and multiply.

Peabody's infectious fervor — and the collective efforts of many — have spawned hope for a comeback by the Olympia, nearly wiped out long ago by over-harvesting and pollution. So far, the project includes 41 restoration sites around Puget Sound and Hood Canal.

Betsy Peabody, left, director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and marine biologist Eric Sparkman examine an Olympia restoration site. The finicky Olympia oysters are grown on large, empty Pacific oyster shells strung on a line between upright posts in calm, protected water, with the oysters always under the water’s surface but above the bottom silt.

Other oyster species, brought from Asia and elsewhere, grow abundantly in Washington waters, making this among the top oyster-cultivating regions in the United States and feeding a rising cult of bivalve adoration.

On the upswing are oyster bars, oyster menus, oyster-fests and diners who dote on these tideland shellfish.

"We are the oyster-eating capital of the country," says Seattle seafood consultant Jon Rowley.

Yet only a tiny share of the oysters served are Olympias, even though many aficionados rate these exceptionally small oysters — most less than 2 inches across — as particularly tasty morsels.

The Olympia's smallness also enhances its appeal for diners new to oysters on the half-shell — that is, raw — the way most oysters are now consumed.

The available Olympias come from a handful of commercial shellfish growers. Most growers don't bother with this oyster because of its low meat yield and finicky, profit-eating ways.

Young Olympia oysters blue dot on shell) attach themselves to larger Pacific oyster shells as they grow..

"There's no money in it whatsoever," said Robin Downey of the Olympia-based Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Those growing Olympias "are doing it out of a sense of history."

Olympia oysters "grow very, very slowly and they're prone to disease," Downey said. "They die if they get too cold, and they die if they get too warm."

Olympias have always been fussy about which tidelands to call home — in this state choosing only optimum sites scattered around Puget Sound, Hood Canal and Willapa Bay. Even so, they were once plentiful in certain bays and inlets, especially in South Puget Sound, and were eaten by Washington's coastal Native Americans.

Mounds of discarded shells (also known as middens) found at several sites indicate Indians were savoring the Olympia oyster — along with clams, mussels, scallops and other tideland riches — hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago.

White settlement in Washington in the 1800s brought on the Olympia's near-demise. Commercial harvesters scooped up entire oyster beds and shipped the shellfish to gold-booming, oyster-hungry San Francisco.

The remaining oysters were nearly finished off in the 1920s and '30s by pulp-mill pollution. Since then, naturally growing Olympia oysters have been hard to find in Washington waters.

Potential benefits

Bringing back the Olympia would restore a slice of Indian culture, said Tom Strong, cultural-preservation technician and tribal-council member of the Skokomish Indian Tribe, whose lands include the estuary. Beyond that, he and others said, restoration would benefit the state's inland-sea environment and Washingtonians in general.

Eric Sparkman, a marine biologist for the Skokomish Tribe, searches an Olympia oyster restoration site in the Skokomish River estuary in the south end of Hood Canal. Sparkman is one of a group of preservationists working to restore the native oysters.

Restoration probably wouldn't increase commercial production of the Olympia, but might enable recreational harvesting on public beaches, some experts said. That's not allowed now.

Diving in to help have been several Indian tribes, commercial shellfish growers, private tideland owners, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and volunteers.

The state's adopted plan for restoring the Olympia has never been funded. That's prompted the enthusiastic Peabody to lead the effort, with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife providing some technical assistance and oyster "seed."

The idea is to start the mollusks at many sites, pampering them with careful planting techniques. If they survive to reproduce, the tide conceivably could carry their offspring larvae to spots where they can take hold and grow.

These finicky shellfish must always be under water, even when the tide goes out; have a firm growing surface, such as rocks or shells; and be relatively safe from predators.

The coddled youngsters in the Skokomish estuary are growing on large, empty Pacific-oyster shells strung on a line between upright posts in calm, protected water, with the oysters always under the water's surface but above the silty bottom.

Elsewhere, private tideland owners have hung mesh "grow-out" bags from docks and buoys. They hold Olympia oysters whose assignment is to reproduce and colonize. Still other planting tricks are tried, depending on conditions.

Peabody says the restorers are on "a great big treasure hunt" to find existing pockets of naturally growing Olympias for brood stock. To preserve genetic integrity, a site can only be planted with oysters from the same general area. (To report an Olympia find: 206-780-6947.)

Pollution problems

Favoring the Olympia these days is improved control of some pollution, especially that from pulp mills.

More troublesome, experts say, is pollution from faulty septic tanks, farm run-off and storm drains. Periodically, high fecal coliform levels close certain shellfish-growing areas to commercial harvest.

While those high coliform counts can make oyster eaters sick, they don't harm the oysters themselves, so the Olympia's restoration can proceed while pollution problems are tackled.

The Sound is "quite a lot cleaner than it was 20 or 30 years go," said Bill Taylor. He heads Washington's largest shellfish grower, Taylor Shellfish Farms, one of those donating oyster-restoration seed and know-how.

Cleaner water, Taylor said, may help account for an encouraging development: the return, in a few scattered coves and inlets, of Olympia oysters growing on their own.

"We're seeing oysters come back in areas where they haven't been reproducing in 50 years," Taylor said.

One place is Oakland Bay, at Shelton, where some Olympia seeding has taken place. Whether that or reduced pollution explains the budding comeback isn't clear.

Either way, such developments stir excitement among those who love tidelands and this edible inhabitant.

At the Skokomish River estuary, those tiny blobs may become part of something big.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company