Olympia oyster comeback impact goes beyond the menu and the shooter glass - Salish Current
March 18, 2024
Olympia oyster comeback impact goes beyond the menu and the shooter glass
Richard Arlin Walker

A canoe arrives at Samish Nation’s Fidalgo Bay Resort during an earlier canoe journey. The refineries on March’s Point, in the background, are helping to clean up pollution that resulted from its activities and are helping to fund Olympia oyster restoration efforts in Fidalgo Bay. (Richard Arlin Walker ©)

March 18, 2024
Olympia oyster comeback impact goes beyond the menu and the shooter glass
Richard Arlin Walker

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The Olympia oyster is making a comeback. And the importance of that comeback goes beyond the menu or the shooter glass. 

It could mean cleaner water nearshore and a resurgence in the population of other native organisms. It could also mean the renewed availability of a traditional food source important to the region’s Indigenous peoples. 

“We say on the Salish Sea, ‘When the tide goes out, the table is set’,” said Tom Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation. 

“Shellfish have always been an important part of our diet and culture. Without oysters, mussels and clams, our entire ecosystem will break down. … As people from here who still live here, we rely upon the bounty of our Salish Sea.” 

The smallish, once-abundant oyster is the only oyster native to Washington state. At the time of European and American contact, there were an estimated 20,000 acres of Olympia oysters in the bays and inlets of Washington’s inland coast, according to the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP). 

By 2010 — 155 years after treaties made Western Washington available for non-Native settlers — only 4% of the Olympia oyster population remained, due to overharvesting and habitat destruction, Puget Sound Restoration Fund director Betsy Peabody said in a documentary on the Partnership website. 

An Olympia oyster bed appears to be thriving in a Fidalgo Bay salt marsh slough. (Skagit County MRC)

Thanks to an ambitious reseeding project at 16 sites led by the Partnership, tribal nations, local governments and mariculture partners, the Olympia oyster is rebounding. 

In Fidalgo Bay alone, the abundance of Olympia oysters has steadily increased from about 50,000 in 2002 to around 5.5 million in 2023, according to the 2023 annual report by the Skagit County Marine Resources Committee (MRC).

Demise of the Olympia oyster

Some 10,000 bushels of Olympia oysters were harvested from Puget Sound in the 1850s, according to the Skagit MRC’s annual report. That number grew to 130,000 bushels by 1890. The Pacific Shellfish Institute reported the Olympia oyster harvest was almost nonexistent by 1915.

“There were healthy populations — as many as 1,000 acres, for instance — in Padilla Bay and Samish Bay and probably a few other bays in the North Sound and a lot, of course, in South Sound and Hood Canal. A lot of these were pretty much wiped out by overharvest,” said Paul Dinnel, a longtime member of the Skagit MRC and author of the agency’s annual oyster restoration report.

Oysters were harvested by dredging, which damaged the beds, and rather than returning the shells to the tidelands the shells were used as ballast in ships. 

“They simply pulled out the oysters and dumped the shell,” Dinnel said. ”With less shell material for spat to settle on, there were a lot fewer oysters to spawn and reproduce and provide larvae for the next generation. Then, along the way came pollution, primarily in the form of pollution from paper mills. Black liquor, the by-product from the digesting of pulpwood into paper pulp, proved to be very toxic to oysters and especially the larval stages.”

Pacific oysters from Japan, which grow faster and larger than the native Olympias, were imported and farmed here beginning in the 1920s to meet the commercial demand and the plight of the decimated Olympia oyster population was ignored, Dinnel said.

“It stayed that way until restoration efforts got started in 2001, in large part due to the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, some of the tribes and groups like the county marine resources committees,” he said. 

Restoration as priority

Once the state and its partners made Olympia oyster restoration a priority, they set out to find ideal sites. 

Fidalgo Bay was selected in 2001 because it was free of oyster drills — a predator that hitchhiked with the imported Pacific oysters. But there weren’t enough Olympia oysters in the North Sound to produce the larvae necessary to begin reestablishing oyster beds.

“We got our broodstock that went to the hatchery for spawning from a very small population on Lopez Island,” Dinnel said. “From those few remnant oysters, several hatcheries started producing seed in tanks with bags of shell on which the larvae settled. Those bags of shell were taken out into the field and dispersed.”

Shell containing about 50,000 oyster seed were planted at the trestle causeway tidelands at Weaverling Spit; planting was later expanded to the March’s Point tidelands at Little Crandall Spit lagoon and the southern sloughs in the marsh at the head of Fidalgo Bay “We then kept our fingers crossed and hoped we’d get some natural reproduction,” Dinnel said. 

Red dots show the location of Olympia oyster seeding sites in Fidalgo Bay. (Skagit County MRC)   

The result: as of 2023 “they’ve gone from the original 50,000 seed to over 5 million oysters,” Dinnel said. 

The Olympia oyster is getting by with a lot of help. According to Dinnel’s report, the Fidalgo Bay project is managed by Skagit MRC, Skagit County Public Works and the Northwest Straits Foundation. Technical support is provided by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Oyster shell and funding has been provided by Blau Oyster Company. 

Other project partners include the Northwest Straits Commission, Samish Indian Nation, Swinomish Tribe, Salish Sea Stewards, Shell/HollyFrontier and Andeavor/Marathon refineries, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Shannon Point Marine Center, the City of Anacortes and the Port of Anacortes.

“Samish [Department of Natural Resources] is involved in several projects regarding the enhancement and protection of critical first food shellfish,” said Todd Woodard, infrastructure and resources executive director, Samish Indian Nation. 

“We seed native oysters on Samish-owned tidelands in Fidalgo Bay and monitor stormwater outflow in the Anacortes area to protect water quality entering shellfish habitat. And we partner with the Anacortes High School Green Club to monitor shellfish populations on Samish-owned beaches, providing students with education and field work opportunities — even assisting in evaluating shellfish populations and trends.” 

Modeling for elsewhere

Fidalgo Bay is a model for other recovery efforts.

The Puget Sound Restoration Fund and the Swinomish Tribe began rebuilding an oyster population at Kiket Lagoon and Lone Tree Lagoon in 2013 and have plans to expand into Similk Bay.

In 2010, the restoration fund spread 1,500 cubic yards of oyster shell over 15 acres in Liberty Bay, within the Suquamish Tribe’s historical territory in what is now the town of Poulsbo. The project goal is to restore 100 acres of Olympia oyster settlement habitat in the bay.

All told, there are 16 Olympia oyster recovery projects underway in Washington’s Salish Sea waters, from Drayton Harbor to the north to Henderson Inlet to the south.

Advocates said they expect oyster reefs — rocks and old shells on which oysters accumulate and add to, shell upon shell — will result in habitat diversity.

“When you change an open mudflat into shellfish habitat, you’ve increased the complexity of that habitat,” Dinnel said. 

“You’ve got all sorts of little nooks and crannies and whatnot that everything’s going to settle in — little crabs, live shrimp, arthropods, worms, juvenile fish. And that provides a home and a place for those animals to feed and they become the food at the base of the food chain. It’s great nursery habitat that provides food for juvenile salmon. So that’s one reason we’re trying to get that kind of habitat back,” he said.

Skagit County Marine Resources Committee and its partners are working to reestablish oyster beds in several locations in Skagit County. (Skagit County MRC)   

Another result may be cleaner and clearer water. “Oysters filter out water, especially algae,” Dinnel said. “Excess algae can lead to paralytic shellfish toxin closures. And if you get too much algae, even if it’s not toxic, your water clarity goes down and not enough sunlight gets down to kelp forests and eelgrass beds.”

A landscape transformed

Rosie Cayou-James is a Samish cultural educator who lives on ancestral land on Guemes Island. Her Samish grandfather, Gus Stone (1898–1967), shared with her his experiences picking native oysters and clams in Fidalgo Bay in the early 1900s. 

“Everything came in and dumped around it, like the docks and the refineries,” Cayou-James said. “It changed everything, even the clams and the abundance of smelt. My grandfather and his friend used to get smelt and Olympia oysters from Fidalgo Bay.” 

The native oysters that were part of the diet of Stone and his ancestors do not exist for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, although the Indigenous signers of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 reserved for their descendants the right to harvest shellfish in natural beds not cultivated by non-Natives. 

Carrie White, an Iowa native who moved in 1873 with her family to a farm at the head of Fidalgo Bay, described in reminiscences for the Historical Club of Anacortes the Fidalgo Bay of Stone’s youth as “a salt marsh covered by the highest tides” with “unbroken forest [that] extended to the water’s edge” and “a fine grove of alder and maple” on one side, and “a fern prairie [that] stretched up the slope from the water” on the other. 

On the Munks’ farm in Fidalgo, a former town on the March’s Point side of the bay, “the clamshells were several feet deep,” White wrote. 

The landscape — and the health of the marine environment — was changed by logging, milling and other industrial uses.

Still, nature has held on.

Fidalgo Bay and its eelgrass beds, tidal flats, salt marshes and pocket estuaries support a diverse population of species, all of which depend on the other. 

The March’s Point heron rookery is one of the largest in Western North America, according to the Skagit Land Trust, which owns and manages the land on which the rookery is located, and the large birds hunt for fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects and voles. 

Water birds stop to rest and feed at Fidalgo Bay during their migration. Surf smelt spawn on the sand and gravel beaches. This is also one of 21 areas in Washington’s Salish Sea waters where Pacific herring are known to spawn, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) reports.

Protecting and restoring the bay

The WDNR designated the 781-acre Fidalgo Bay as an aquatic reserve in 2008 to preserve habitats and the diverse aquatic and land species. 

A clambake was hosted by the Samish Nation at its Fidalgo Bay Resort during an earlier canoe journey. Samish hopes that Olympia oysters, which were part of their ancestors’ diet, will be safe enough for consumption. (Richard Arlin Walker ©)

Some 40 tideland and upland cleanups on Fidalgo Bay are in various stages of completion, according to state Department of Ecology records. The most significant projects involve removal of contaminants from paper production, plywood milling and oil refining. 

Not all in-water contamination can be removed. Waste from treated wood may contain arsenic, chromium, copper, pentachlorophenol and creosote, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Wood waste is removed by dredging to a certain depth; residual waste is covered with a layer of clean sediment, sand or gravel.

Stormwater runoff carries road pollution and bacteria from animal waste into the bay. “Stormwater runoff contains a lot of stuff,” Dinnel said. “E. coli bacteria from animal waste will tend to close shellfish beds, especially during periods of rain that pushes stuff down rivers. 

“There’s some legacy or residual pollution and sediments from paper mills and other industrial activities. Creosote is nasty stuff that leaches from pilings into the water and sediments. Walk along the trestle [across Fidalgo Bay] and you’ll just see oily stuff coming out of the sediments.”

The Olympia oyster population is rebounding but it could be a while before they’re safe to consume on a regular basis. The local Native seafood consumption rate of 10.5 ounces per day — roughly one serving — would be unsafe if the source were Fidalgo Bay. 

“Both the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Samish Indian Nation have expressed their strong desire to return Fidalgo Bay to a healthy state, enabling full fish and shellfish tribal consumption rates,” WDNR reported in 2019.

“Healthwise, Fidalgo Bay in my mind is still a little dicey for harvesting shellfish,” Dinnel said of consuming shellfish from Fidalgo Bay. 

“There’s just been a lot of contamination in the past and it’s gotten into sediments and there’s also a fair amount of stormwater runoff. It’s not advisable at this point. It’s getting better but there’s still contaminants around that are getting into shellfish there.”

— Reported by Richrd Arlin Walker

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