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Return of oysters is no shell game

KNEE DEEP IN THE BROWNSVILLE ESTUARY — Peering into the murky depths, Betsy Peabody tried to discern one shellfish from another with a single species in mind.

Under the foot-deep briny water during Wednesday’s low tide, May 26, mixed among mussels, butter clams, crabs, sand and rocks lay her prize — a handful of 2-year-old Olympia oysters clustered on a Pacific oyster shell.

Peabody, who serves as the executive director of the Bainbridge Island-based Puget Sound Restoration Fund, is the driving force behind the return of the Olympia oysters to a native territory where they once thrived before being wiped out by overharvesting, pollution and the introduction of Pacific oysters from Japan toward the end of the 19th Century. The native species was so abundant that annual catches were in excess of 130,000 bushels around 1890 according to a 1998 report from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“Comparison of historical documents and local knowledge indicates that current numbers are at best a mere fraction of, and possibly more ephemeral than, historic populations,” the report states.

The Olympia oyster continues to thrive in the south end of the Puget Sound, though Peabody said small stocks have been found in Dyes Inlet, Port Gamble Bay, Hood Canal and near Port Madison. A study to determine if these oysters all share the same genetic stock or have changed depending on their locale is now under way. If the different oysters are identical genetically, it would be easier to start stocks around the Puget Sound.

“It has made it fun to have a treasure hunt aspect to finding these genetic stocks,” Peabody said.

Olympia oysters are slow-growing, taking three years to mature to roughly the size of a 50-cent piece. The ones sought by Peabody in the Port of Brownsville operated waters were planted by school children in 2000.

As Peabody looked for the oysters, a whole new batch of cultch (seed oysters on the shell) packed in mesh bags was being laid out in a row to grow the next phase of the project. Funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s community-based restoration program, the project has involved the WDFW’s Point Whitney shellfish lab, the Lummi hatchery in Bellingham (which seeded the shells) and the Taylor Shellfish hatchery in Quilcene, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Council and a number of American indian groups including the Suquamish Tribe.

Bill Taylor, president of Taylor United and one of the largest shellfish suppliers in the United States, said the diminutive bivalve is popular with oyster connoisseurs because of its distinctive flavor and size.

He said his Shelton-based company has contributed both monetarily and by providing time and oyster seed.

“We’re hoping to get as many populations back and returned as much to normal as we can,” Taylor said.

Having a local harvestable supply of a former dietary staple wasn’t even on most tribal members’ radar screens.

“Nobody even gave the Olympia oysters much thought until Betsy came along,” said Claye Williams, Suquamish Tribe member who was helping plant seed and plot the size of the oyster bed.

The 25 bags, each containing dozens of shells coated with the greenish-brown Olympia oyster seed, will be monitored by the Puget Sound Restoration Fund on a monthly basis throughout the summer. The non-profit group hopes to spread more than 800,000 Olympia oysters over more than 10 sites on public, tribal and private tidelands.

“You have to watch and make sure the bags don’t get fouled with seaweed or sea lettuce,” said retired Point Whitney shellfish manager Hal Beattie, “and another danger is the seed growing into the netting.”

Beattie described the group’s endeavor as “Hands-on enhancement.”

After the oysters start to grow, the bags will be removed and the cultch will be spread about a portion of the estuary to feed on the nutrient-rich waters.

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