Rewilding Our Oyster Beds
August of 2023 will mark three and a half years since we bought our first Oyster Farm. What a unique and interesting business it has turned out to be. Three years on we now farm over 300 acres. We believe this amount puts us into the top 20 largest farms, for acreage in the US. We now have a nursery where we raise young oysters from larvae, a retail store and restaurant, a production facility for preparing our oysters for market and lots of boats.
The store and restaurant take up a lot of our time, but that’s really only in the summer. In the fall, winter and spring we are actively farming our beds and improving them. One of our core values, as a company, is that we work to make the world a better, healthier and more beautiful place.
Three years ago, when we purchased Stony Point Oyster Company, it came with a dredge boat. Previously, the company had been solely focused on dredging their beds at Stony Point. A quick education of dredging is that a boat will slowly traverse an oyster bed at high tide. Beneath the boat they will drag large metal oyster basket along the bottom that collects all the oysters on the bottom. It’s a very efficient method of farming. Here on the Willapa a good dredge team will harvest upwards of 15,000 pounds of oysters in a 4 hour run. As a result, we estimate that over 90% of the oysters harvested from this bay are collected by dredge boats.
Great, one thinks, it’s efficient and keeps the price of oysters low. If we are experienced business people, why would we walk away from such an efficient process?
For us the answer is simple: the efficiency of the process is far less important than the damage it does to the planet. Dredging doesn’t just collect oysters, it collects everything on the bottom. It destroys eel grass and ensures it doesn’t come back. When you walk on dredged beds they are desolate places. Less forest, more desert. The only difference is that in a desert the animals have adapted to that environment. In an estuary, like the Willapa, eel grass is a significant member of the ecosystem that other species have adapted their behaviors around. Juvenile fish and crabs us it to hide and live. Pacific Herring, an closed fishery in our area, use it to lay their eggs. It is as important to the species that exist in an estuary as houses are to us. The combination of oyster reefs (or hummocks as we call them locally) and eel grass are a significant and critical aspect of the Willapa Bay.
So, at a tremendous expense and increase in costs, we stopped dredging. In that time we have moved to two very expensive forms of farming. Our primary method is hand harvesting. Frankly, we believe this is an immeasurably better method from an environmental perspective. Our impact on a bed is significantly lower. In addition we are able to leave a great many of the smaller oysters undisturbed while we harvest the larger ones.
While we expected that eel grass would proliferate given the chance, we didn’t realize the other benefits that would arise from the rewilding of our beds.
First of all, burrowing shrimp are highly prevalent on our bay. They are an indigenous species. In recent decades they have become an issue of significant concern for the oyster farmers. If the shrimp arrive on the beds they tend to undermine them as they move around looking for food. As the beds soften they can’t support the oysters and they begin to sink. Once they have sunk enough the suffocate and die. Thus, the farmers have looked for solutions.
Within the last 5 years the farmers applied for an received a permit from the US Government to spray pesticides on their beds to kill the shrimp. Yup, they wanted to spray pesticides in the cleanest bay in the continental United States, because an indigenous species was impacting their profitability. It was only when a huge backlash was unleashed by consumers, chefs, restaurateurs and environmental groups that they relented and agreed not to spray.
Three years later our eel grass has significantly reduced the number of burrowing shrimp on our beds. Eel grass is like Bermuda grass in that it grows a network of roots from which the blades of grass grow. These networks of roots are a problem for burrowing shrimp and when it is present they go somewhere else where it does not exist.
Secondly, we have seen an explosion of juvenile species on our beds. When we harvest oysters by hand we pack them into mesh bags. We then attach those mesh bags to a long line with a bouy at the end. At high tide we come back and pull the bags up. This saves us making multiple trips across the beds carrying the bags to a boat. It’s about a 40 minute ride from the beds to the dock. By the time we get to the dock and unload the bags the back of the boat is filled with thousands of juvenile Dungeness crabs. It's amazing. We now have a process in which we shovel them into containers and return them to the bay to continue growing.
Finally, and most critically, we have seen an explosion of Olympia Oysters on our beds. Olympia are the indigenous oyster of the West Coast. They were harvested to near extinction in the last half of the 19th century. Then when the much larger and faster growing Pacific Oyster arrived form Japan in the early 20th century the poor Olympias were immediately relegated to the dustbin of history.
Over the past three years, Olympias have flourished on our beds. We hypothesize that this has occurred because of the return of eel grass. Olympias are brooders, meaning they self-fertilize their eggs and keep them inside until they are ready to attach to something and begin to grow. By contrast Pacifics are broadcast spawners. In the spawning season (early summer) they broadcast their sperm and eggs into the water. As they are floating with the currents the eggs are fertilized and grow into larvae, then at some point in time they attach to something and begin to grow.
Our hypothesis goes like this: Pacifics are designed to travel great distances in fast moving water. When they are finally ready to attach to something and begin to really grow they are adept at doing that quickly and with a fast water flow around them. Olympias, however, are not as adept at either floating around or attaching in fast moving environments. Thus, when they are released they have less time to find a place. The presence of eel grass slows the water flow and allows them the opportunity to find something to attach to at their pace. It’s just our hypothesis…but we know that our Olympia inventory on beds with eel grass is 100x the amount of Olympias on beds without eel grass.
By not dredging we have incurred much greater cost to produce a single oyster.
You hear it a lot, people saying companies should put the planet over profits. We agree and are putting our money where our mouth is.
Join us in rewilding the Willapa Bay…maybe someday Pacific Herring will be back in significant numbers. Until then, we simply love to enjoy the view of un-dredged beds.