Thursday, July 11, 2019

Showcasing Shellfish in Willapa Bay

Laura Butler
Washington State Aquaculture Coordinator

Marilyn Sheldon talk about some of the issues faced
by Willapa Bay oyster growers.
I recently joined some folks from the agencies and associations that interface with shellfish growers in Washington for an educational tour of Willapa Bay’s muddy tidelands.

The event, showcasing issues and aspects of shellfish aquaculture in the region, was hosted by the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

It drew representatives from Washington state’s departments of Ecology, Health, Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. Also joining were people from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and growers associations.

Willapa Bay has roughly 40,000 acres of tidelands, the backbone for about 10,000 acres of continuously rotating oyster beds owned and operated by Taylor Shellfish Farms, Goose Point Oyster Company, and Northern Oyster Company to name just a few. In addition, the state owns some of these tidelands, those beds are managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

In small ponga boat taxis, we made a quick trip up the meandering channels exposed by the low tide to the shimmering fields, where we saw several techniques used to optimize oyster cultivation in the fertile bay responsible for more than a quarter of the country’s oyster production.

Oyster farming techniques 

An oyster dredge at work in Willapa Bay.
We put our muckers to good use with the first steps out of the boat as we slopped around among some of Taylor Shellfish Farms’ oyster beds.

Acres and acres of bottom culturing dominate the seascape. In these expanses, growers simply spread out oysters across the seabed where they grow much like wild oysters would, then harvest them with dredges that scoop them up out of shallow water with a large basked towed behind a low-slung barge.

Oysters suspended above the muck on a long-line setup.
Likewise, young oysters packed into flip-bags that swing from lines in the tide flow fatten up to be served on the half-shell in high-end restaurants around the globe.

Long-lining and flip baskets are more costly than bottom culturing but they help growers capture a different segment by producing beautiful oysters for half-shell market.

Threats to the industry

Burrowing shrimp infestations are increasingly disrupting Willapa Bay oyster operations. When swarms of the shrimp dig into the oyster beds, they destabilize and soften the sea floor causing the oysters to sink into the muck and smother.

Burrowing shrimp pulled from the sand.
A stop on the way back to the shore brought the problem into clear focus. The infestation of small shrimp was obvious from the absence of oysters. With the first step, we could feel the mud give way under our boots. David Beugli of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association, pushed a water pump into the ground and quickly disgorged a dozen pale shrimp. The burrows dotted the ground.

Marilyn Sheldon of Norther Oyster Company said she’s seen entire swaths of oyster beds sink away into the unstable substructure caused by the shrimp.

“It’s really hard,” she said. “When it’s goes, it’s gone forever.”

Burrowing shrimp aren’t the only challenges. Predators, toxic algae blooms, shellfish disease, and unexplained die offs are all threats the industry. Growers experiment with growing techniques and disease resistant varieties to reduce losses.

Meeting on board in Willapa Bay.
Erik Hall, Taylor’s Willapa Bay Director of Farms, said the company is always looking for ways to boost the survival rate.

“The one thing I can tell you about shellfish -- they’re worth a lot more when they’re alive then when they’re dead,” Hall said.

Oyster processing 

A little farther down the road, Ekone Oyster Company gave everyone a look at how the oysters are processed after they come out of the bay.

First stop was the shucking line. Here, men and women deftly wield oyster knives so fast, all you see is a blur.

Bang! The hard clump slams down onto the table. Click. The tip of the knife strikes down against the lip of the shell. Swip, swip. The blade slips under the shell with a back-and-forth swipe across the abductor muscle and the slippery animal flops out. Each shucker races to fill a large stainless steel basket, then carries it over to the wash rack for a rinse. Repeat.

Willapa Bay grows oysters to be served raw on the half shell, shucked to be sold by the pint, canned and smoked, and sold in bulk for processing into popular Asian ingredients such as oyster sauce. The industry is the life blood for the rural communities along the coast.
Bill Dewey talks oysters. 

The economic impact of aquaculture 

Rob Johnson, Ekone’s half-shell room manager, spent most of his professional life working in the lumber industry. When the mill he managed closed a couple years ago, his options were limited. He said he is grateful for the opportunity he found at the processing plant.

“It’s been a real blessing for me,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for this shellfish farming opportunity I would have had to leave the community. But I didn’t want to leave. This is my home.”

Johnson was excited about how the company helps the whole economy.

“We’re growing,” he said with a smile. “I just hired five people in the last six weeks. Those are full-time jobs.”

The Willapa Bay tour was a great way to educate people on this important industry and the challenges it faces. Thanks to Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association for organizing the event.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me with your thoughts and comments.