Still sometimes known by different names depending on which bay they are from, the native Olympia oysters of the West Coast have a special place in the hearts and bellies of those who appreciate the real Pacific Northwest. Within this fairly exclusive club of people in the know, each step toward their recovery is like learning of a battle being fought by brave partisans in some distant revolution.
Continuing good news from Netarts Bay in Tillamook County, Ore., concerning Oly-restoration efforts by Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a sign that it may be possible to partially correct one of the worst mistakes made during the early settlement era of the 19th century. Starving for oysters, California slurped a treasury of Oregon and Washington shellfish accumulated since the last ice age. Particularly in their most famous sanctuary of Willapa Bay, these little oysters were not so much harvested as plundered.
Then called Shoalwater Bay and its oysters known as Shoalies, Willapa was a complex terrain of tideflats and shoals made up of both earth and great banks of oysters. Though Chinook Indian people and other tribes had relied on them as a key food source for thousands of years, they always left enough in place for them to almost be a geographic feature.
The same was true in bays up and down the coast, with oysters serving as reliable food and habitat for other creatures, while also engaging in an enormous amount of water purification.
The fissures created by the smaller, more densely packed clusters of Olympia oyster shells provide safe havens and sites of attachment for tiny, niche-dwelling marine fish, invertebrates, and plants. Recent studies suggest that Olympia oysters support richer and more diverse underwater communities than to similar-sized clusters of farmed Pacific oysters, according to Washington Sea Grant.
Though hardly bigger than a silver dollar, Olympias process up to 25 gallons of seawater a day in an unending quest for nutritious plankton. Multiplied millions of times, this process in essence makes them the lungs of their estuaries, regulating nutrients to just the right levels.
Somewhat akin to its effort in Pacific County to see if it may be possible to return the Ellsworth Creek watershed to a natural system that can provide both economic and environmental benefits through carefully crafted tree harvesting, the Netarts native-oyster restoration has great promise. It offers a prospect for bringing back commercial quantities of a premium oyster that sells for $1 apiece in high-end settings. And if enough of them begin reproducing, they will help regulate and improve the bays water.
It is particularly good to observe that Whiskey Creeks Mark Wiegardt and Sue Cudd with deep links to Willapa Bay are helping set the table for future generations of oyster growers and lovers.
Make no mistake Olympia oysters will never again be a common menu item. It could take 100 of them to make a meal-sized serving. And while delicious, they arent for everyone. They are morsels of the rare, wild world compared to the big and bountiful farmed Pacific oysters available in local restaurants and grocery stores. As much as spring Chinook salmon, Olys are the taste of the ancient Northwest. Enjoy them sparingly and savor their return to our modern lives.