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The Oystermen

OPB | April 18, 2011 9 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 4, 2013 9:56 a.m.

Oyster Harvest, Coos Bay circa 1940

Oyster Harvest, Coos Bay circa 1940

Historic Photo Archive, Portland; Photo by Al Monner

Oysters are unusual little creatures, and they’ve played a distinctive role in Pacific Northwest history. As Euro-Americans settled this region, the native oyster became one of the first natural resources to be exploited on a large scale - and one of the first to be depleted. The oyster business spawned the creation of several coastal communities and precipitated the demise of a vast Indian reservation. Yet the oysters themselves and the colorful oystermen who farm them have contributed many unacknowledged environmental benefits, as well.

The clean, cold waters of the Pacific Northwest produce excellent quality oysters, and some of the finest come from Oregon.

Yet the Northwest’s oyster industry began in Willapa Bay, Washington. And even today, Washington’s oyster production dwarfs that of Oregon. There’s an obvious, geographical reason for that:

“If you look at a map, you can see that Washington has lots of convoluted inlets and rivers entering the coast. The Oregon coast, by comparison, is a lot more linear, and it’s probably a lot more subject to wave action.

I think what oysters really are looking for—if I were an oyster what I’d be looking for — is a safe haven. If you ever go out to an Oregon beach during a storm, with the waves crashing up onto the shore and all that, oysters aren’t adapted to handle that. They want a calm bay with just enough activity, just enough plankton that’s growing in the water column, so they can grow undisturbed and feed to their heart’s content.”

David G. Gordon
Science Writer, Washington Sea Grant
Author, “Heaven on the Half Shell: The Story of the Northwest’s Love Affair with The Oyster.” (2010 interview)

But even though Washington contains more oyster-friendly habitat, at least three areas of the Oregon coast have developed into active centers of oyster production, each with its own unique - and uniquely-interesting - history. “The Oystermen” explores the industries of Yaquina, Tillamook and Coos Bays and the regional oyster story in which they emerged.

“In the 1800’s, people were so maniacal about the Olympia oyster, the native oyster, that they overharvested them. But that didn’t signal that the party was over to them. Rather, they started looking for other sources. And as soon as they completed the transcontinental railroad, as soon as they drove the golden spike connecting the East railroad with the West railroad lines, they started bringing oysters—Eastern oysters—from the East Coast and dropping them into some of these same bays, hoping to cultivate them.

It’s important to remember, though, that most of the people who settled the West at that point were from the East. So the idea of bringing lots of Eastern oysters and putting them into these bays was a no-brainer for them.

Well, it turned out that bringing oysters all the way across country on railroad cars and then waiting for several years for them to mature into a harvestable stock was not such a great idea. It took a really long time. There were losses, high losses of oysters along the way. And once here, they didn’t really adapt that well to our colder water conditions.

So if you brought an oyster all the way from Boston to any of the bays along our coast and then had to wait for a long period to raise it, that’s a pretty cost-intensive way to go. In the end, most of the people who put a lot of energy into that pretty much lost their shirts.

Around the time that people realized that raising Eastern oysters wasn’t penciling-out for them, some started experimenting with bringing oysters from Japan.

Now these were a completely new stock called the ‘Japanese’ oyster — today we call them ‘Pacific’ oysters. And they seemed do remarkably well here. They could grow to maturity in about two years, which was considerably faster than an Eastern oyster would grow, and were quite prolific. And they were disease resistant.

Initially, the idea had been that if people brought oysters from Japan, they’d bring grownups. But a lot of them would die along the trip. It was too much of a stress for them to travel by ship for several weeks and get dumped into our bays.

Someone discovered, though — after the adults had died — that there actually were juvenile oysters growing on the shells of these dead adults. And these juveniles did really well. So a light went on in someone’s head: Let’s start bringing the juveniles over. And thereafter what they did was to bring what is called ‘oyster seed’, little juvenile oysters attached to a little chip of shell. People could ship them safely and then sprinkle them — like you would seed in a field — to develop an oyster crop.

It was amazing. You can see photographs of ships that are just full of these boxes of oyster seed, and each box contained several large sacks full of oyster seed, and each sack contained millions of oysters waiting to be grown. So beginning in the 1920’s, the amount of oyster stock that was brought over from Japanese growers was truly astounding.

Bringing oysters in from Japan was an enormous industry right up until World War II, and then of course, there wasn’t a lot of commerce with the Japanese during the war. So those ships stopped coming here. That’s another one of those great ups and downs in the oyster industry, because oyster growers now had to figure out ways of finding domestic stocks to replace that.” David G. Gordon (2010 interview)

As evidenced by today’s thriving industry, oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest did find their way.

Resources

 

Books

Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

Lori McKean and Bill Whitbeck, The Joy of Oysters

M.F.K. Fisher, Consider the Oyster

Lilli Clausen, The Affordable Oyster - 75 Recipes

 

Web sites

HistoryLink.org: The Shoalwater Bay Story

HistoryLink.org: Thumbnail history of Pacific County, WA

University of California: Fish Bulletin 123: The California Oyster Industry - 1963

American Heritage Magazine: Consider the Oyster

Google Books: Popular Science magazine, December 1899 “Eastern Oyster Culture in Oregon”

A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North AmericaNature Conservancy: Restoring Oysters to Netarts Bay

Smithsonian.com: Review of the documentary: “Who Killed Crassostrea Virginica? The Fall and Rise of the Chesapeake Oyster”

Wall Street Journal: Northwest Oyster Farms Unable to Fill Demand

U.S. News and World Report: Oysters in Deep Trouble

KUOW.org: Oyster Larvae Dying Off at Alarming Rates


Broadcast Date: April 18, 2011

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