Like many businesses during the pandemic, the Swinomish Shellfish Co. has pivoted to stay afloat.

Purchased in 2013, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s 55-acre shellfish farm in Similk Bay is more to the community than a commercial operation, but selling oysters was always part of the plan.

Unfortunately, Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, beginning in March 2020, kept customers from dining out, leading to a drop in oyster sales to restaurants.

The Swinomish Shellfish Co. redirected its focus on retail sales – out of the warehouse at the Swinomish marina, at the market beside the Swinomish Casino Chevron station in Anacortes, and through partnerships including the Seas the Day traveling oyster bar.

The Swinomish shellfish farm grows a variety of oysters, including Pacific, Kumamoto and Olympia oysters, which are the only native species to the region.

“Native oysters, grown in native waters, by a native tribe. These are the OG of Oysters,” boasts the Swinomish Shellfish Co. website. “About the size of a silver dollar. These special little critters are unique in the oyster world for many reasons. Fished to near extinction during the Gold Rush, commercial aquaculture as well as restoration efforts have ensured that the Olympia Oyster is still with us, and thank goodness.”

Swinomish is also working on mail-order oyster delivery, said Stuart Thomas, the company’s director and aquaculture specialist.

“The pivot to retail is only so effective, but between that and planning a shipping service, it’s a struggle to make much cash flow,” he said. “The retail is very up and down, peaking around holidays.”

For special occasions, the Shellfish Co. partners with other growers, such as Penn Cove Shellfish, to sell clams and mussels.

More important than retail sales, however, is what the shellfish company provides to the tribal community. Oysters have been served at elders lunches and the annual clambake, and have been distributed to the community on a number of occasions during the pandemic, Thomas said.

“Our shellfish farm is a source of food security, providing traditional food to tribal members,” said Swinomish Fisheries manager Lorraine Loomis. “Our goal is to make sure these tidelands continue to support harvest for future generations.”

  • Swinomish Shellfish Co. offices are at 11455 Moorage Way, beside the Swinomish marina. Order online at swinomishshellfishcompany.com for pickup Friday afternoons from 3 to 6 p.m.

The Swinomish Shellfish Co. grows oysters in eco-friendly bags tethered to the beach in Similk Bay. Photo by Stuart Thomas.