Washington Shellfish Initiative lifts Native Oyster Restoration Efforts in Puget Sound

by Betsy Peabody

Launched in December 2011, the Washington Shellfish Initiative has provided a mighty boost for native oyster restoration efforts in Puget Sound.  A new shellfish restoration hatchery will open in December 2013 at NOAA’s Manchester Research Station with support from both the National and Washington Shellfish Initiatives.  “The intent from the beginning of this effort two years ago was to support PSRF work on Olympia oyster restoration,” according to Walton Dickhoff at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.  Close on the heels of the 2011 launch, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife updated the Olympia oyster Rebuilding Plan in May 2012 to lay the groundwork for focused, strategic restoration at 19 priority locations in Puget Sound where core populations existed historically.  To further implementation, NOAA directed funding through the Northwest Straits Commission to produce genetically-diverse seed for Sequim Bay (with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe) and Drayton Harbor.  Soon thereafter, Washington Department of Natural Resources provided funding for native oyster enhancement on aquatic reserve lands in Fidalgo Bay in July 2012, and Washington Department of Ecology funded a large-scale, 10-acre restoration project in Port Gamble Bay in 2013 that will include the production of 5,000,000 restoration-grade seed at the new shellfish restoration hatchery.  To cap it all off, in 2013 the Governor’s office provided capital funds to purchase seawater monitoring equipment for the new hatchery.  This is all thanks to an initiative that brought singular focus to the job of protecting and enhancing shellfish resources in Washington State.  NOAA Aquaculture and Taylor Shellfish deserve a big round of applause for spurring the initiative, coalescing disparate efforts and building momentum for all manner of shellfish restoration.

There is strong cause to believe that Olympia oyster efforts will result in restored habitat in the lower intertidal that supports multiple fish and invertebrate species.  A structured oyster bed, after all, is a means for rebuilding species diversity and ecosystem health in the 19 priority inlets.  Liberty Bay is a good example of success.  At the suggestion of Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), and with funding and support from NOAA, The Nature Conservancy, USDA, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the Suquamish Tribe, PSRF and a multitude of partners spread shell 2005-2011 across almost 20 acres of tideflats in Liberty Bay to provide settlement structure for native oyster larvae.

According to Brady Blake with WDFW, “extensive monitoring has shown that remnant native oysters scattered in the bay have rapidly re-colonized the restored shell-based habitat exhibiting significant reproductive success, survival, increased abundance including multiple year classes, and colonization of new habitat.   Based on these observations, the results of focused native oyster restoration efforts in Liberty Bay have achieved the minimum thresholds for determining successful restoration identified in WDFW’s 2012 updated Olympia oyster rebuilding plan.  That plan emphasizes re-establishing native oysters at key locations to a threshold where they are naturally self-sustaining, viable populations exhibiting the ability to continue expanding their presence and abundance locally and throughout Puget Sound. By that measure, Liberty Bay provides the model for continued native oyster restoration and research in Washington State.”

Looking at the numbers, mean live oyster densities at the two Liberty Bay sites are 296.8 oysters/m2 at Dogfish Bay and 73.6 oysters/m2 at Scandia, with core populations defined as having a minimum of 75 oysters/m2.  So, we’re well on our way to meeting the ultimate goal of walking away from Liberty Bay - and letting the oysters take care of themselves. 

In sum, Washington State meant business when they launched the Shellfish Initiative in 2012.  We, in turn, are building on this groundswell of support to advance restoration aquaculture in the service of species that may need a helping hand in the future.