Willapa Bay Interpretive Center opens Friday

LYNDA LAYNE photo<br> Oysterman Dennis Tufts investigates the inside of an oyster shell as he speaks to a group of volunteers at the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center. Clues on the shell indicated that the oyster grew for four years. The center will open Friday, May 28 for the season, which lasts through Labor Day.

NAHCOTTA - John Sporseen, who oversees the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center, says it is a window into the history of Willapa Bay and especially, the oyster industry. That small cedar-sided building, on 273rd off of Sandridge, houses photos, information and gear used in an industry that has put this area on the map. When the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center opens for the season Friday, hopefully it will attract at least as many people as it did last season.

Last year, according to Sporseen, "More than 1,000 people from outside of the Peninsula visited this museum." But the number of people from the Peninsula who came to the building was small in comparison. "Our goal now is to get local people to come and see it," he said.

The building is a replica of oyster station houses that were once common out in the waters of the bay. Built on pilings over the water, they were homes for families that made their living in the oyster industry. And what an industry this has become. According to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association in projections for as far back as 2005, Washington state would produce 77 million pounds of oysters for the year, making this a $72 million industry. Willapa Bay produces as much as half of that amount and about one-fourth of all the oysters grown in the U.S.

Sporseen wants residents of the Peninsula to come to the museum to learn the history of this industry and of the bay itself. Oysters were first harvested by tribes of the Northwest more than 150 years ago. This history is chronicled on the walls of the building in both photos and text. Also, there is a 20-foot mural of the bay on the west wall.

The Interpretive Center is staffed by volunteers. Several of them met Friday and listened to a presentation by Dennis Tufts, a long time oysterman who began working for the Washington Department of Fisheries in 1957. The following year, he was involved in repairing a native oyster dike in this area. Since then, he's watched the bay and the industry develop and change.

Tufts spoke of the history of oysters in Willapa Bay. "The native oysters were the main staple of the tribes in this area. With the coming of the white settlers, the first people here were basically fishermen. They harvested what was here. The native oyster was the mainstay of the oyster industry in Washington for many years."

He talked about importation of eastern oysters into the area, after the population of native oysters dwindled. "The eastern oyster didn't do well," he said.

Oysters from Japan were also brought here. Throughout the years, it has been a trial and error situation, seeing what works and what doesn't. Currently, there are six species of oysters in Willapa Bay. And how they are grown has changed over the years.

Tufts said, "With the advent of oyster hatcheries, oyster growers innovated different ways to grow oysters. Instead of growing them on the bottom, they developed a system where they would string a number of shells on a rope and suspend them."

Inside the Interpretive Center is an example of this stringing. Near it is a 14-foot dinghy built in the late 1920s. Inside the boat are tools of the trade, including baskets, oyster tongs and a rake.

Not only is it fascinating to learn the history of the oyster business, but it's also interesting to learn what is going on in the industry today. Tufts said that about 1,000 people work in the Willapa Bay oyster business here year around. And in today's environmentally conscious world, he said that he has always considered this a sustaining industry that is self-renewing. "It's nature at its best."

While driving on Sandridge Road, near the bay, motorists pass huge stacks of oyster shells. Are they just stacks of surplus? Not at all. A trip to the museum will help answer this mystery, so people can find out why, at a certain time of year, spawning occurs and according to Tufts, "That's when the shell piles start moving." He calls oysters "the ultimate recyclers."

One of the volunteers at the presentation was Carole Wiegardt, who is active in the oyster industry. The Wiegardt family has farmed oysters in Willapa Bay for five generations. Some of their oysters are shipped as far away as Hong Kong.

Wiegardt agreed with Tufts, saying that about 1,000 workers are currently employed in this area's oyster industry. "I don't think it was always at that high level, but now it is."

Many residents of the Peninsula have had relatives who worked in the oyster business - one more reason to investigate the museum. It could reveal some family history, too.

Those who come to the museum sign in and have the option of leaving comments. Wiegardt said that the sheets are loaded with positive statements. "You should read the comments that are on the visitor sheets!" She said that visitors have been "just delighted."

Doors will open Friday morning. It will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and major holidays from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Admission is free. Arrangements for group tours can be made by calling the Port of Peninsula office at 665-4547.

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