"If you don't love life you can't enjoy an oyster; there is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes. They shiver you for a split second." -Travel writer Eleanor Clark
Washington's waters are known to connoisseurs. Oyster lovers appreciate the qualities that differentiate the shellfish grown in Hood Canal from those in North Puget Sound, South Puget Sound or Willapa Bay. Like fine wines, oysters are sought for the flavor imparted by where they grow. Salinity, minerals and available food all can affect the flavor of an oyster.
Oysters don't only give us delicious delight, they also provide important “ecosystem services." Live oysters clean and clear the water around them. But oysters and other shellfish are at risk as our warming planet changes the oceans.
Through public/private and NGO partnerships like the Washington Shellfish Initiative, we're working to support partners in restoration of Washington's native oyster populations and the livelihoods of our state's commercial shellfish growers.
Oysters are good neighbors. As filter feeders, adult oysters can each filter 50 gallons or more of water per day in search of food. Siphoning oysters filter and consume plankton, keeping water clear so that eelgrass and other marine life can thrive. And oyster beds provide habitat for invertebrates like crabs, shrimp and other shellfish, as well as the small and juvenile fish so essential to the marine food web.
CORNERSTONE OF COASTAL CULTURE
Here in Washington, our bays and estuaries used to have abundant populations of Olympia oyster. "Olys" are the only oyster species native to Washington – in fact, the only one native to the West coast of North America.
A host of tribes harvested wild oysters for generations for subsistence and cultural purposes. In the mid-1800s, commercial harvest of Olympia oysters began in earnest. The industry took hold in California as people flocked to the region for the gold rush. As oysters were depleted in California’s waters, harvesters came north. It didn’t take long for our Olympia oyster beds to be picked clean.
As native oysters became scarce, non-native species were imported from the east coast and Japan. These non-native species thrived and quickly became the core of the world-renowned oyster industry we have in Washington today. Washington is the country's top provider of farmed oysters, clams and mussels. And shellfish aquaculture adds $270 million to the state's economy each year.
Hope on the half shell
When they are conserved and managed well, oyster beds - naturally occurring and farmed - provide crucial “ecosystem services” important to the health of estuaries and bays. In Willapa Bay, for instance, farmed oyster beds are the habitat most preferred by juvenile Dungeness crabs. Those juveniles move offshore when they mature; Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor Estuary together are the source for about 30 percent of the Dungeness crab caught off Washington's Pacific coast.
However, The Nature Conservancy estimated that 85% of oyster reefs had been lost worldwide as of 2009—even greater than the losses reported for other important marine habitats including coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrasses.
If we want healthy estuaries and bays, as well as delicious oysters to eat, we need to take care of both our native shellfish habitats and a clean coastal environment that supports shellfish farming. The Conservancy, shellfish growers, and other groups like the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are working to restore native oysters in Puget Sound. Beyond Washington, we are working a wide variety of partners and volunteers to restore oyster reefs along the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts.