SKOKOMISH (June 19, 2003) — Sunk in mud and nearly hip-deep in water, Eric Sparkman pulls a large oyster shell from a saltwater pond and begins to take measurements. It’s not the dimensions of the shell Sparkman is looking to note, it’s the size of what’s living on the shell he’s after.
“There’s several Olympia oysters living on this one, five or six, and they’re all pretty small,” said Sparkman, shellfish biologist for the Skokomish Tribe. “But they are alive and they are slowly growing, and that’s really what counts.”
Outfitted in hip-waders, Sparkman and Teresa Barron, management biologist for the tribe, spend the afternoon checking two of the five sites near the Skokomish River where Olympia oysters have been planted. The pair counts and measures the juvenile oysters, checking the progress of a project aimed at reintroducing the native species back to the area.
Once abundant on Puget Sound beaches, Olympia oysters have all but disappeared in the region. Most shellfish connoisseurs consider the Olympia oyster, which is usually less than 2-inches wide and 2-inches long, a delicacy. And that is partly the reason the oysters were nearly harvested to extinction more than a century ago.
To satisfy a voracious demand for shellfish, Olympia oysters were harvested in great numbers in the mid-1800s. Most of the oysters were shipped to San Francisco during California’s booming gold rush years. By 1880, abundant Olympia oyster stocks throughout the Puget Sound were nearly wiped out. As the Olympia oyster began to disappear, the shellfish industry began importing Japanese Pacific oysters to the region. The larger Pacific oysters quickly took over cultivated beds once home to thriving Olympia oysters.
But over-harvest and displacement were only partly to blame. Pollution from western Washington industries, particularly pulp and paper mills, and the loss of habitat to development also played significant roles in the Olympia oysters’ demise.
Indian tribes have always valued the Olympia, which is western Washington’s only native oyster. The Olympia was not only an important source of food for the coastal Indians in the area, but the oyster also was a valuable trading item.
Today, the Skokomish, Suquamish, Squaxin and Jamestown S’Klallam tribes, along with the Lummi Nation are working with others to help bring Olympia oysters back to the region’s beaches. Others involved in the restoration project include the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources and Taylor Shellfish Farms.
“This project is a unique community venture,” Sparkman said. “A lot of different groups have been brought together for a common goal: to re-establish the native Olympia oyster.”
The brood oysters for the Skokomish sites were collected from beaches along Hood Canal and spawned at a state shellfish laboratory in 2002. The seed, attached to Pacific oyster shells, was placed in the growing plots throughout the Skokomish River estuary. At some sites, shells, bearing the young oysters, are attached to a rope stretched between two posts. The rope keeps the oysters in ideal growing conditions, above the muddy bottom but below the water.
Along with the Skokomish sites, Olympia oysters also are being cultivated at Budd Inlet and Squaxin Island near Olympia; and Liberty Bay and Brownsville near Poulsbo. If the project is successful at these sites, recreational harvests of Olympias, currently prohibited , could take place in a few years.
“The intent is to rebuild stocks of naturally spawning populations of Olympia oysters on historic grounds in Puget Sound and the Washington coast,” said Dave Fyfe, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission shellfish biologist. “It’s a lengthy process but, eventually, we hope to see good survival and good growth of these oysters, to the point that they are not only reproducing but repopulating an area.”
For more information, contact: Eric Sparkman, shellfish biologist for the Skokomish Tribe, (360) 877-5213, [email protected]. Dave Fyfe, shellfish biologist for the NWIFC, (360) 598-6077, [email protected]. Darren Friedel, information officer for the NWIFC, (360) 297-6546, [email protected].
Photos available: Photos of an Olympia oyster survey can be e-mailed. Contact Darren Friedel at the above number.