"Now, everything has turned and many have been spotted. We couldn't be more excited!"
Dick Vander Schaaf
It’s been eight years — and millions of seeded larvae — in the making. But a native oyster that cleans water and provides habitat for marine plants and fish is making a comeback in Netarts Bay. Some are even calling it an oyster explosion.
“Overharvesting in the 1800s nearly wiped out the Olympia oysters,” says Dick Vander Schaaf, the Conservancy’s Oregon associate director of coast and marine conservation. “To stay in business and provide food for our tables, commercial oyster growers were forced to import a non-native oyster, known as the Pacific oyster.”
Why Oysters — and Why Here?
Once a dominant shellfish in most large bays along the West Coast, the Olympia oyster filled a key ecological role by constantly filtering huge volumes of water and providing important habitat. But the few remnant populations of Olympia oysters were challenged by habitat loss as well as by non-native predators that feed on native and commercial oysters alike.
That’s why The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in 2005. Working together, we aimed to bring back the Olympia oysters — the only native oyster in the West.
“These silver-dollar sized creatures can filter up to 15 gallons of water a day!” adds Vander Schaaf. “All that algae pumping cleans the water and prevents clouding. Plus, their shells form reefs which provide a home for marine life including juvenile salmon and starry flounder.”
Netarts, a small bay on Oregon’s north coast, was a prime setting for the project, as it’s in better condition than many other estuaries where the native oyster was once abundant. Netarts offers sheltered, publicly owned tidal flats with plentiful, suitable habitat needed by native oysters.
Collaborative Science in Action
Using techniques shared by Whiskey Creek — and lessons we've learned at over 160 marine restoration projects around the world — The Nature Conservancy started reintroducing young oysters. The process is quite complex:
- Adult oysters are dumped into huge tanks each spring.
- Free-swimming larvae are collected as they are released.
- Larvae are fed in the hatchery until they are ready to settle.
- Mesh bags filled with clean oyster shells are placed in the tanks.
- Mature larvae attach themselves to the shells.
- Shell bags are placed by hand along the bottom of Netarts Bay, where the young oysters mature into adults.
And, while you likely won’t see results overnight, they do come.
“There were many years when we didn’t see a single young Olympia,” comments Vander Schaaf. “Now, everything has turned and many have been spotted. We couldn’t be more excited!”
The goal is to place enough oysters in suitable habitats that they can maintain a self-sustaining population. The Olympia oyster is becoming so popular that oyster growers are beginning to plant them for commercial harvest. Soon they will be gracing menus in West Coast oyster bars.
Oyster Fast Facts:
- 85 percent of the world's oyster reefs have vanished.
- A single adult oyster can filter up to 15 gallons of water a day.
- Annual harvest of Olympia oysters in Washington reached 130,000 bushels by the 1890s. By 1910, production declined to only 16,000 bushels a year. Oregon and California experienced similar declines.
- Coasts, bays and estuaries contain some of the most productive yet altered ecosystems on Earth, which is why the Conservancy's Global Marine Initiative targets the restoration and conservation of native shellfish, including the Olympia oyster.
- The Nature Conservancy operates more than 100 marine conservation projects in 22 countries and all coastal U.S. states.
- Netarts Bay is just one of many Oregon sites where we're working to ensure commerce and conservation are achived in harmony.