Ocean-to-table journey of uniquely tasty oysters takes work - Salish Current
January 31, 2023
Ocean-to-table journey of uniquely tasty oysters takes work
Alexi Guddal

Oyster biologist Kat Garrah and oyster farmer Mark Seymour shovel oysters from an oyster cage into a bucket for later processing, as part of their work for Drayton Harbor Oyster Company. Oysters are harvested daily in Drayton Harbor, when water quality and weather parameters permit. (Photo by Alexi Guddal / Whatcom Conservation District)

January 31, 2023
Ocean-to-table journey of uniquely tasty oysters takes work
Alexi Guddal

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

“Oysters are one of the most sustainable, delicious products on the face of the Earth … all we have to do is keep our water clean,” noted Steve Seymour of Drayton Harbor Oyster Company.

Eating an oyster is a unique food experience, with a distinctive texture and a brine reminiscent of the sea. Since before European settlement in this part of the world, oysters have been a part of the region’s culture and cuisine. 

Today, the journey from the ocean to your plate takes the hard work of recreational harvesters or local oyster farmers. However, oyster cultivation faces many large challenges such as water quality, climate change and invasive species that are outside of an oyster farmer’s control. The passion and struggle to continue oyster cultivation and harvest in Drayton Harbor is emblematic of the rest of our region.

Drayton Harbor is in Semiahmoo Bay, just south of the U.S.-Canada border. The City of Blaine is located on the harbor. California Creek and Dakota Creek bring fresh water into the harbor, and Semiahmoo Spit protects the harbor from storms. These natural features make it an ideal location to grow and harvest oysters and manila, native littleneck and butter clams. 

In the early 1990s, the Lummi Nation harvested over 30,000 pounds of clams annually from Drayton Harbor. However, in 1995, the water quality declined and a portion of the harbor was closed to shellfish harvest. In 1999, the downgrade closed the entire harbor to shellfish harvest 

Oysters feed by filtering what is in the water — which may including chemicals, viruses and bacteria. Not all are harmful to oysters or humans, but some are. Of particular concern is contamination from fecal bacteria. 

These bacteria are present in the feces from warm-blooded animals. Fecal bacteria levels are used by health departments to monitor the safety of marine and fresh waters. The bacteria in the water can come from many different sources, including poorly working septic tanks, improper manure management, unnaturally high concentrations of wildlife, improper management of boats or RV waste and pet waste left on the ground that washes into the harbor.

oysters ready to eat
Raw oysters are a relished tradition in Pacific Northwest cuisine. Served on ice, their unique texture and brine is reminiscent of the sea. However, because oysters will take in pollutants, chemicals and bacteria in the water, raw oyster consumption is prohibited when water quality is low. (Photo by Alexi Guddal / Whatcom Conservation District)

When fecal bacteria levels reach a certain point, raw oysters are unsafe to eat. When the bacteria levels are really high, most methods of consumption are unsafe and harvest is prohibited. 

Drayton Harbor typically has clean water and exceptionally low fecal bacteria numbers, which is what makes this bay so special. However, without understanding and preventive action from everyone in the watershed of the important relationship between the land and the harbor, fecal bacteria numbers can rise quickly and be difficult to control.

“Right now, we are seeing elevated fecal coliforms in the in the harbor, but we don’t really know why that is,” said Kat Garrah, a biologist with Drayton Harbor Oyster Company. “They could be coming from many different sources.” There is not one culprit to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, and the fluidity of water makes tracking potential sources difficult.

Geoff Menzies, one of the original founders of Drayton Harbor Oyster Company, partnered with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, after the closure in 1995. At the same time, the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District was established. People and organizations began systematic water quality monitoring to determine potential sources of fecal coliform bacteria. Then followed monitoring with outreach to the communities, farms and cities that were causing water quality issues. 

Through their combined efforts, water quality has improved. In December of 2016, over 810 acres of shellfish growing areas were opened for harvest. This brought harvest back to the harbor for the first time in 20 years.

“The long-term commitment to water quality improvement by local and state agencies, tribes and community members has been paramount to the success seen in this area,” said Scott Berbells with the state health department. “Pollution prevention actions are working and the community can be proud of their accomplishments,” 

Seasonal harvest closures are still imposed in some parts of the harbor between October and January. The first few rainstorms after summer will pick up feces that have accumulated on the ground and flush these pollutants into creeks and out into Drayton Harbor. 

Today, the Whatcom Clean Water Program is made up of many organizations and people, including local tribes, cities and local agencies working together to help reduce the risk of contaminants entering our water. Improving water quality doesn’t just help oysters. It improves human health and habitat for many other animals. However, it is a continual process where we all have to work together to achieve clean water. 

If you love your local oysters, you can make choices that help keep oyster cultivation and a clean harbor thriving. Some easy actions to take are picking up and properly disposing of pet waste, securing your trash and pet food from wild animals, properly maintaining your septic tank, planting native plants, following a farm plan, properly pumping out your boat or RV and not feeding wild animals. Resources are available through local counties and conservation districts on how you can help improve water quality. Together, we can ensure oysters will be enjoyed in our county for many years to come.

“The oysters bring everything full circle. They are the embodiment of all the energy and efforts that have been put into [improving water quality] all these years,” noted Drayton Harbor Oyster Company’s Kat Garrah.

— Contributed by Alexi Guddal, Whatcom County Conservation District

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