Washington Nature Conservancy employee Jeff Compton helps spread oyster shells at Liberty Bay as part of a project to create new habitat for the Olympia oyster.
“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.” —Eleanor Clark
Some people shiver eagerly in anticipation of a delicious oyster. Others shiver with disgust at the thought. But whether you prefer to chew them, swallow them whole, or just skip them and move on to dessert, oysters offer something for everyone.
Oysters are filter feeders. An adult oyster can filter 25 gallons or more of water per day in search of food. In doing so, they remove things like toxins, algae and extra nutrients that flow off the land into nearby saltwater.
All things being equal, more oysters equal cleaner water for everyone. Conversely, fewer oysters means our bays and estuaries are worse off. And if water is too polluted, the oysters living in it can be poisonous for us eat.
Besides the essential job of filtering water, oysters provide habitat for myriad other species. As they grow in clumps and form larger reef structures, they provide homes for invertebrates like crabs, shrimp and other shellfish, as well as the small and juvenile fish so essential to the marine web of life that we rely on.
Cornerstone of coastal culture
Oysters have long been important to coastal communities. Here in Washington, there once were abundant oysters in the shallow bays and estuaries of Puget Sound and Willapa Bay. These were the Olympia oyster, the only oyster native to Washington – in fact, the only one native to the West coast of North America.
Native people enjoyed abundant wild oysters. Commercial harvest was largely spurred by the California gold rush in the mid 1800s; as oysters were depleted in California’s waters, people sought and found them farther north. It didn’t take long for our Olympia oyster beds to be picked clean.
As native oysters became scarce, non-native ones were imported from the east coast and Japan. Soon a thriving and world renowned Washington oyster industry was established.
Engine of economy as well as ecology
Oysters are part of a huge shellfish industry in Washington and throughout the coastal United States. According to the Pacific Shellfish Institute, “Washington State is the largest producer of bivalve shellfish product in the United States, generating nearly $100 million in sales and accounting for 86 percent of the west coast’s production in 2005.”
Most of the oysters cultivated in Washington waters are non-native, the Pacific oyster being the most common. But the Olympia oyster is still cultivated and is hopefully poised for a comeback – with some help. They are all good neighbors, doing their part to make our saltwater bays and estuaries cleaner.
These bays and estuaries 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.
Wine lovers may be familiar with the concept of “terroir.” Like wines, oysters are sought not only for their species (as in kind of grape), but also for the flavor imparted by where they grew. Salinity, minerals and available food all affect the flavor of an oyster.
Hope on the half shell
This past winter The Nature Conservancy co-authored a scientific study revealing that more than 85% of oyster reefs around the world are gone. We’ve lost an incredible abundance of wild oysters due to heavy harvesting, damaged and destroyed habitat, disease and other human factors. And it seems we’ve forgotten how common and important oysters once were – and can be again.
The Nature Conservancy isn’t taking this loss lying down. We have worked for years to protect habitat and water quality in Places like Willapa Bay (located near the Conservancy's Ellsworth Creek Preserve) and Hood Canal. We have also worked with partners like the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to actively bring back wild, native oysters in the bays of south Puget Sound and in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo.
Farther afield, we are working with partners and volunteers to restore oyster reefs along the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
If oyster reefs are in crisis, should you still eat oysters? Yes! As Mike Beck, lead marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy, recently explained on the Conservancy’s blog, you can – and should – eat oysters. Eating appropriately sourced oysters raised via aquaculture supports oyster growing businesses, which means economic as well as ecological benefits for local waters and communities. Oyster growers have a connection to the land and the sea, as the health of both is vital to their success. And Washington is home to many oyster growing operations.
So go ahead and gobble these sustainable shellfish. And as you seek your favorite oyster terroir, contemplate their steady, thankless work to keep our waters cleaner and support wildlife along our coasts.
Explore an interactive map of oyster regions across the country.
Read The Nibble’s very thorough “All About The Oyster.”