How did your get involved in the oyster industry?
“I’m second generation. My parents started the business a little more than 40 year ago. Since I was ‘knee high to a grasshopper,’ I’ve been in and around the business. If you put my in a diesel truck, I’ll fall asleep within about 15 minutes because I used to be on the oyster dredge with my dad in a little bassinet riding around. When I was a little older, I would ride around in the skiffs and help pick out oysters. Then I started packing oysters with the crew on the table. As soon as I could drive, I helped delivering oysters. Eventually, I went off to college to study marine biology and Spanish at the University of Hawaii, which is where we currently have our oyster hatchery that we started in 2010. I always knew I was going to come back and work in the business. My last year of college, I was in a class of about 75 kids and I was only one that knew anybody that produced a food crop. I knew it was time to go back and continue that legacy of growing a wholesome, amazing food and help support a great rural community that’s supported our family for three generations.”
Is there a seasonality to sales in the oyster industry?
“Yes, we do have a little bit, but it’s actually evened in the last two or three years. The holidays — November through February — we get really busy. We do some exports to Hong Kong and around Asia. As oysters have gained popularity, we’ve evened out in our business cycles and it’s pretty consistent now.”
Has your customer base changed or evolved?
“Yes, as millennials (ages 18 to 34) are becoming more interested in different types of food, oysters have been one of the hot topics, one of the foods they really enjoy eating. There has been a huge oyster renaissance that’s happened and millennials are loving oysters on the half shell.”
How does the business compare today to when you first became involved?
“I’ve been back for 10 years. It has evolved immensely in becoming a vertically integrated company and having a hatchery in Hawaii. When I first came back, we lost about 40 percent of our production due to ocean-acidification issues. When we decided to make the (hatchery) move to Hawaii, it’s allowed our farm to be secure and grow, as well as support other family farms in the area with an adequate seed supply for them to grow oysters themselves. It’s been an amazing transition over the past 10 years.”
What’s your biggest concern facing the oyster industry in Willapa Bay?
“The biggest issue we’re dealing with is an imbalance due to burrowing shrimp. The estuary has gone through fluctuations of borrowing shrimp over the last 60 years and continues to go through those waxes and wanes. They’ve seen the highest recruitment (of burrowing shrimp) the past two years. It’s removing a lot of the native eel grass and causing a shift in the habitat which affects the oysters. It’s big problem for not only oysters farmers, but fishermen and other people who live and work on the bay.”
What impact has recent immigration enforcement had on the oyster industry?
“It’s not only something that the shellfish industry in general is worried about, but also across all agriculture. We don’t have an adequate immigration program that’s available to a lot of the people — because we’re not considered seasonal work, we’re more of a year-around business.”
What is the most challenging part of your job?
“The biggest challenge currently is the regulatory side of things. In our industry, we don’t have an umbrella agency that oversees us. There’s no streamlined balance to how we’re regulated and what goes into those regulations. Coming up with a solution to that would be great because I spend up to 75 percent of my time just dealing with regulatory issues that are a huge hindrance to our business simply because they take a lot of time, but they don’t actually help us have a better food product. There are a lot of third-party systems that help you have a better food product and I think if our state took a look and ran with some of those, they would be a lot more success and have a better food product coming out of processors instead of doing a mix-match patchwork of agencies doing different things.”
What changes would you like to see specifically?
“It would be great to see some streamlining of the regulatory portion of things. From the Department of Health standpoint, they do a really good job because we have the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which allows industry to be active in the legislation that gets changed, but we don’t have an active voice when it comes to the Washington Department of Natural Resources or Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.”
How supportive is the community?
“Extremely supportive. The shellfish industry is the largest private employer in Pacific County. We’re supported across the board because we’re so heavily involved and active in our communities.”
What part brings you the greatest satisfaction?
“I love the people that I get to work with every day. I love that I get to produce an amazing food. And I love that I get to live on the water.”