The Squaxin Island Tribe is spreading oyster shells on a handful of intertidal beaches in a hunt for the offspring of a tiny, rare, native oyster. This fall, tribal researchers will come back to see if any young Olympia oysters have attached themselves to the shells.

Like other shellfish, Olympia oysters are broadcast spawners. Young oysters float on the tide until they settle on a hard surface such as an old oyster shell, called cultch.

“There are a handful of areas on the island with small populations of Olympias, but we want to see where the oysters are spreading their seed,” said Eric Sparkman, shellfish biologist for the tribe. “Hopefully, we’ll find the beginnings of good natural production in some areas, meaning we can come back, expand our efforts and possibly kick-start a self-sustaining population out here.”

Olympia oysters are the only oyster native to Puget Sound and had been mainstay in the Squaxin tribal diet until they largely disappeared almost 100 years ago. Pollution and competition from invasive shellfish species almost drove Olympia oysters to extinction.

“We have always depended on Olympia oysters,” said Andy Whitener, the Squaxin Island Tribe’s natural resources director. “Olympias took advantage of our pristine bays and beaches for centuries, growing and evolving into an important food source.”

The tribe is also working with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to restore Olympia oysters on Squaxin Island. The tribe and non-profit have spread thousands of oyster seed on the island’s tidelands.

“Over the past century, the Olympia oyster’s habitat has been hammered, and they almost disappeared,” Whitener said. “We want to save Olympia oysters and bring them back to harvestable levels.”

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For more information, contact: Eric Sparkman, shellfish biologist, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3811. Emmett O’Connell, information officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304, eoconnell@nwifc.org