Native oysters make a comeback in Willapa

Warren Cowell leads native Shoalie oysters recovery efforts. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

NAHCOTTA - "I will walk away before I repeat history," said Warren Cowell as his Willapa Bay Shellfish Co. of Nachotta begins harvesting about 150 dozen native Shoalwater Bay oysters a week from Willapa Bay.

Native Shoalwater Bay oysters were so rare in the late twentieth century that many considered them endangered. About a year ago, Willapa Bay Shellfish purchased a bed that is loaded with them. After consulting with biologists Alan Trimble and Jennifer Ruesink of the University of Washington, Cowell determined that he could begin a sustainable harvest from his bed.

"I could market a lot more than I'm harvesting now, but I've decided to proceed with caution. I think this is prudent because of history," he said.

Native Shoalwater Bay Oysters have many names. Willapa Bay oyster growers call them "Natives" or "Shoalies." The general public mostly refers to them as Olympia oysters. Shoalies are the Northwest's only native oyster. They range from Baja, California to Sitka, Alaska.

Shoalies usually inhabit low intertidal areas or small tidal channels where the oysters are covered in water at low tide. Shoalies have flat shells and are about the size of a 50-cent piece. Their flavor is quite different from Pacifics and Kumamotos. Shoalies have a pleasant mineral flavor that lingers on the palate.

First Nation peoples of Willapa Bay extracted Shoalies for centuries. Native Shoalwater Bay oyster grew wild in such abundance that it is unlikely First Nation peoples felt a need to cultivate or farm them. When mid-nineteenth century pioneers first viewed the vast oyster reefs of Willapa Bay, they often described them as limitless.

Shoalies' pleasant flavor made them enormously popular with miners and others drawn to California's 1849 Gold Rush. By 1852, native oysters were commercially extinct from San Francisco Bay and Shoalies were regularly being shipped to San Francisco aboard schooners. Bruceport, Oysterville, Diamond City, Sunshine Point, Nachotta and Bay Center are towns that sprang up on the shores of Willapa Bay to support this flourishing industry. In 1858, Oysterville shipped over 75,000 bushels to San Francisco. Native Shoalwater Bay oyster production peaked in 1891 with 130,000 bushels being shipped to San Francisco. With approximately 1,500 Shoalies required to fill a bushel basket, 195 million Shoalies had to be extracted from Willapa Bay in 1891 to meet San Francisco's oyster demands.

Knowing that extraction could not keep up with demand forever, nineteenth century oystermen responded by cultivating areas that were not natural oyster beds. They marked off the boundaries of the tideland they were cultivating with tall fir stakes. In these beds, they would transplant adult Shoalies from oyster reefs and return undersized Shoalies. This began the process of creating private property rights to the intertidal and sub-tidal zones of Willapa Bay. These rights were formalized after Washington became a state in the Callow Act, passed in 1890 by Washington state's first legislature and the Bush Act, passed in 1895. Today, Washington is the only state in the union to permit outright private ownership of intertidal and sub-tidal zones.

Cold winters in the mid-1890s wiped out almost all of the cultivated native Shoalwater Bay oyster beds by 1900. This, combined with over-harvesting of the natural beds of Shoalies, pretty much eliminated commercial harvest of these native oysters. In 1919, almost all remaining native Shoalwater Bay oysters were wiped out by a mysterious, toxic, marine plankton. The exact cause of 1919's shellfish mortality has never been confirmed. Throughout the twentieth century, Shoalies were always known to be present by oyster growers in Willapa Bay. Contact with native Shoalwater Bay oysters was frequent. Commercially, Shoalies were ignored as oyster growers farmed and marketed much larger Pacific oysters.

Cowell was amazed when he first surveyed his new Shoalie bed. "The tideland was not considered adequate for Pacific oyster production so there had been very little activity on it for many years. Tim Teall (Willapa Bay Shellfish's manager) and I were stunned when we saw native Shoalwater Bay oysters everywhere. They were on every structure they could attach themselves to. They were in clusters of 20 to 30 oysters." Cowell and Teall closely studied their native Shoalwater Bay oyster bed for about a year. Their observations, combined with information supplied by Jennifer Ruesink and Alan Trimble, has yielded lots of helpful information.

An enormous amount of native Shoalwater Bay oyster larvae was present in Willapa Bay in the summer of 2002. Shoalies nurture their larvae until they are ready to set. This makes native Shoalwater oyster sets more localized than Pacific oyster sets.

Shoalies are much more particular about the environment than Pacifics. They like soft but not silty bottoms and need to be covered by water at low tide. Willapa Bay Shellfish's Shoalie bed seems to lack predators, particularly oyster drills. In 2003, Willapa Bay Shellfish plans to try several experiments on their Shoalie bed to increase the number of catching structures for Shoalie larvae. They will create a shell bed for the larvae using crushed Pacific shell. In addition, eggshell cartoons covered with concrete will be placed on the Shoalie bed for larvae to attach to.

Cowell is a pioneer who has much in common with Willapa's nineteenth century pioneer oystermen. He is about to farm and harvest native Shoalwater Bay oysters on a production level for which there are no current examples.

Knowing how nineteenth century farming turned out motivates Cowell to make an offer that none of the nineteenth century oystermen are remembered for: He is encouraging others to join him in raising Shoalies.

"I'll do whatever it takes to help bring the native Shoalwater Bay oyster back," Cowell said. "I will supply brood stock to anyone who wants grow them. All I ask in return is that they share any information they gather with me. Hopefully, this will get more people involved in growing native Shoalwater Bay oysters and increase the overall well-being of native Shoalwater Bay oysters in Willapa Bay.

"Selling a 150 dozen native Shoalwater Bay oysters a week is just enough to pay for our expenses while we are learning more about this particular species of oyster," Cowell said. "About 90 percent of my production is Manila clams. I completely shift gears when working with native Shoalwater Bay oysters from production to research and the gathering of knowledge. I feel very lucky to be part of Willapa Bay's continuing history with the native Shoalwater Bay oyster."

Native Shoalwater oysters are available daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Nachotta Seafoods, which Cowell owns and manages at 275th and Sandridge. The phone number is 665-4688.

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