WRITTEN BY LISA HEYAMOTO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
A wintry afternoon gives way to a brief rainbow over Willapa Bay. Oystering requires plenty of hard work and is dependent on fickle nature, which sometimes repays farmers on days like this.
With old ways and new ideas, Willapa Bay's oystermen face a shifting future
THIS IS THE WAY it has always been: Les and Dan Driscoll, father and son, 69 and 44, will pull on their rubber hip boots and set off into the nearly moonless night.
As Willapa Bay slowly shrinks with the tide, the two will begin the long hike away from the dinner lights shining on shore, through the crackling Spartina grass, over first spongy then muddy ground and, finally, into the black water itself.
Thigh-deep, they will follow the receding tide out a mile or more to the small barge they'd left out when the waters were higher. They will reach it just as the mudflats surrounding them are fully exposed.
Jorge Garcia and Enrique Ruiz sort oysters outside the Jolly Roger processing plant. A recent consumer shift toward live, in-shell oysters has left farmers struggling to accommodate the changing market.
"It's not something very many people get to experience," Dan says. "To walk on the bottom of the sea."
Oysters are everywhere, a field of jagged speed bumps — so many that Les reminds everyone not to step on their fragile bills. Twice. The Driscolls sell their oysters live and in the shell. It's a picky market where only the best-lookers are bought, and each underfoot crunch is clearly driving him nuts.
The small team at Oysterville Sea Farms will have about three hours until the water chases them back to shore. Meantime, the bushel baskets come out as each man bends double and begins shoveling in oysters with two gloved hands, ignoring the bone-deep cold and leaky boots, shedding layers of clothing as they begin to sweat, hauling their brimming baskets out of the mud and onto the barge, trying to make as big a dent in their plot of ground as time will allow.
Very likely, this is the way it will always be.
An oyster hotbedFor more than 150 years, sea farmers have been plucking oysters from Willapa Bay, now considered the largest farmed-shellfish producer in the U.S. But fickle nature and an even more fickle market are causing changes in the industry.
In the 150 years that farmers like the Driscolls have been harvesting oysters from Willapa's waters, the way things are done has changed little. The best techniques are the old ones — a guy in the mud on one end, a guy with a shucking knife on the other — and no machine has been able to beat what one man can do by hand. The biggest industrial innovation, oystermen like to say, was the switch from sail to engine.
Still, some things are changing in this remote corner of Washington state. The oyster industry is in transition, and Willapa Bay farmers have experienced more change in the past few years than they've seen in decades.
"The industry is definitely in flux," says Jon Rowley, a shellfish marketing consultant. "I think there's a lot of excitement in the air when it comes to the oyster business."
From the handful of companies farming the bay more than a century ago to the estimated 350 independent growers in Willapa today, the bay has always been an essential contributor to the oyster industry. Though the shellfish are pulled from bays and inlets all the way from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula, Willapa is thought to be the largest farmed shellfish producer in the U.S., having provided, along with neighboring Grays Harbor, around 42 million pounds of oysters in 2003 at a value of $32 million, according to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
As they've always done, the farmers are tinkering with ways to stay on their feet while the industry landscape shifts — rolling with a changing market and dipping into other shellfish such as clams and geoducks to stay afloat. It's an oysterman's best defense against fickle nature and an even more fickle market.
While things settle, the Driscolls will be out in the mud like they always are, hard workers in hip boots, reaping their crop from the generous bay.
WHEN DAN DRISCOLL started Oysterville Sea Farms out of the cannery building he inherited from his dad in the early '90s, Willapa was still largely a meat market. The oysters were drawn from the bay, sent to a processing plant and shucked for their contents, where they would end up in a jar in a refrigerator somewhere.
A growing market for shell oysters has been credited in part to the popularity of oyster bars in fancy restaurants, where the bivalves are served on the half-shell over ice, to be slurped down raw. This plate contains a typical selection. Starting clockwise with the largest, they are: Pacific oyster, European flat oyster, Virginica or Eastern oyster, more Pacifics. Inner circle, lower: Kumamoto oyster. Upper: Shoalie or Olympia oyster.
But shortly after he took over, things began to change, and in the past five years, the market has flipped. People don't want pre-shucked oysters anymore. They want them in their natural packaging, in the shell, live.
Some farmers think the reason is a generational thing: Today's home cooks don't really know what to do with a jar of oysters. Or it could be that we got fancy. Oyster bars came into vogue, and white-tablecloth restaurants started presenting them on a bed of ice and making them a luxury. More likely, it was the corresponding boom in the Asian market, which went looking to Washington for the large, fresh oysters that were so in demand.
Driscoll, however, was always in on the trend, mostly because that's how he likes them best. His business isn't big; selling much of his product retail out of his historic cannery in Oysterville, he's barely a pin prick on the industry map. Still, his preference gave him a head start on the changing market.
"I would like to see people appreciate oysters for what they are," he says.
It was different for Fritz and Ken Wiegardt.
Fritz Wiegardt is part of a long tradition of Willapa oystermen. His family has been farming these waters for 135 years, passing down their farm and processing plant from father to son.
Fourth- and fifth-generation Willapa oystermen, the two are the latest owners of the Jolly Roger processing plant and Wiegardt and Sons oyster farm, passed down from father to son for 135 years.
Used to be, the Wiegardts would produce about 90 percent shucked product to 10 percent shell. Now, it's about half and half.
Supermarket demand for shucked oysters is basically dying, says Ken Wiegardt, 31. "We're starting to see a shift toward restaurants."
For the Wiegardts, the switch has been a trial. It's more expensive and difficult to ship shell oysters, which are heavy, unwieldy and, if that weren't enough, alive. The Wiegardts can take up to four days to get the shucked product from bay to box. With whole oysters, it must be done in one.
Different market trends make things tricky, too: Americans want a small oyster, the Chinese want big.
"And what do you do with what's in between?" Wiegardt wonders. "There really isn't a market for it."
Ken Wiegardt inspects a petri dish of algae he will use to feed baby hatchery oysters. Hatcheries have helped stabilize an otherwise volatile industry by providing a steady crop of oysters while also allowing farmers to diversify their offerings by growing other kinds of shellfish.
Add in the fact that it takes a different growing method to produce a single, lovely oyster of the right size and shape than it does to grow a lumpy clump of them that no one but the shuckers will ever see. The farmers are experimenting with so-called cultchless growth methods, testing ways to prevent the shells from clinging together as they mature.
That's where the hatcheries come in, which can produce not only single oysters, but other species as well. Hatcheries have given stability to an industry where so much had traditionally been left to chance, and their increased use is another part of the change in oystering.
Nearly all of the Wiegardts' oysters start their lives in 1,400-liter tanks under 1,000-watt lightbulbs, feeding on lab-produced algae for a month until, at about the size of a freckle, they're transferred to the pool-sized tanks on the bay's shore.
These little guys are grown on salvaged old shells, which is why there are great, heaping piles of them behind the buildings and in the parking lots of every farm along the Long Beach Peninsula.
These freckle-sized dots on the shell are month-old baby oysters. Soon, they'll be sprinkled in Willapa Bay, where they will grow for about a year until they are moved to different oyster beds to fatten and grow large.
Some farmers, like Driscoll, use what is called natural set, sprinkling their tideland with shells and hoping the oyster larvae manages to attach. If it rains too much, the altered salinity of the water could kill the baby oysters. If it's too windy, the larvae could be swept out to sea. If it's too hot, the warm water would be fatal.
"Natural set is just too unpredictable," Wiegardt says. "With the hatchery, we don't have to depend on Mother Nature as much."
Once the baby oysters, called spat, are dropped in the bay, they're left to grow for about a year. After that, the farmer picks them up from the bottom of the bay and transfers them to another oyster bed, where they're left to fatten or grow even larger.
A crop of oysters can be moved as many as four times in the standard six years it takes them to mature. Much more akin to ranching than farming, the process allows the oysters to get different nutrients at the right stage in life, and the variety lends a better flavor once they're ready to be eaten.
Two workers for Wiegardt and Sons oyster farm deposit a load of oysters onto the deck of the Tide Point. The oysters were picked the previous night during low tide, then stored on the bottom of the bay in giant tubs that hold about 1,500 oysters each. The workers retrieve the tubs when waters are higher by lassoing the buoy that marks its spot with a chain and hauling it up out of the water.
"They go through a lot of hardships," Driscoll says. "I think that gives them a more complex taste."
Though hatcheries give farmers more control over their volatile product, there are trade-offs: A hatchery oyster is more fragile and takes longer to grow.
"But hey," says Wiegardt, "a fragile oyster is better than no oyster."
THE WATERS OF Willapa Bay have been kind to those who labored here. But the farmers have not always returned the favor. Around the turn of the 20th century, what was then called Shoalwater Bay became barren after overharvesting wiped out the native oyster species.
Called Shoalies by those in the know, but better known as Olympia oysters, the breed was thriving naturally in the bay when San Franciscans, riding the high tide of the Gold Rush, discovered that Willapa could supply a skyrocketing demand. Their boats headed north, and companies started popping up around the bay, loading the small, coppery oysters onto ship decks by the shovelful.
"Willapa wasn't being farmed," says Rowley. "It was being plundered."
By around 1900, the bay was bare. Farmers tried to grow other species, but none was able to survive. People had all but given up when a lawyer-turned-farmer named Gerard Mogan began quietly experimenting with a Japanese species called the Pacific oyster.
The Pacific was the one that stuck. Hardy, and considerably larger than its predecessors, it thrived on the nutrients Willapa provided. When farmers talk about a Willapa oyster now, they're talking about a Pacific. And when they talk about the bay, it's with no small amount of pride. Willapa is widely considered the most pristine estuary in the country, and oyster farmers say they are a big part of the reason.
"We've been the bay's protectors for at least the last 50 years," says Les Driscoll's brother, Dick Sheldon, 70. "That's our lifeblood out there."
It's true the quality of an oyster depends on nothing so much as the quality of the water it's grown in.
But the oystermen chafe at being lumped in with the irresponsible farmers of Willapa's past. Most still pick oysters by hand rather than scoop them up with a dredging boat; they're careful to reseed their tideland when the picking is done, and they get red-faced at evidence of poor septic planning and the slowly increasing development along the peninsula.
"The difference between us and a farmer is, a week after we leave, you'll never know we were there," Sheldon says.
Surly environmentalists though they may be, the farmers are also businessmen. Always. Washington is the only state that allows state-owned tideland to be purchased for shellfish farming, and the watery plots the farmers tend are often their own.
Brian Sheldon reflects on the oyster industry in front of a heap of old shells, which are saved after shucking, dried and reused to grow the new crop. Oyster larvae, called spat, attach to the shells and use them as stabilizers as they begin to mature.
"If we jeopardize the water quality, we're out of business," says Brian Sheldon, Dick's son. "If people own the grounds, people are gonna take care of them."
But most farmers don't own wide swaths of land. Their holdings are more piecemeal — 10 acres here, 50 acres there — the better to ranch the oysters from bed to bed.
In the high tide of a gray afternoon, the evidence is everywhere. Slim hemlock boughs reach up out of the water as markers throughout the bay. Pieces of PVC pipe tied with faded fabric are staked like homestead flags in the muck beneath the rippling water, so each farmer will know where his field ends and another begins.
But all are affected by what they say is the biggest problem facing Willapa oyster farmers today.
"The least of their worries is the market," says Morris Barker, marine resource manager with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The real issue is with invasive species."
The most problematic pest is the ghost shrimp, a small, translucent creature that burrows beneath the bay floor in a constant search for food. Like a mole in a field, it tunnels, churning the ground until whole areas of tideflat are reduced to loose sediment. For oysters, this means a slow, sinking death into the maw of the mud.
Willapa's population of ghost shrimp has exploded in the past several years. Farmers have been using the insecticide Carbaryl to control the problem since the early 1960s, but a recent battle over using it in the bay resulted in an agreement with the Washington Toxics Coalition to phase it out by 2012.
Oystermen are not at all pleased about this. They feel picked on, overridden because they didn't have the money to fight the thing to the top. Faced with a nearing cutoff date and no alternate plan, they worry for the future of the industry.
"The industry is really having to scramble to figure out what we can do to resolve this," says Bill Taylor, whose family owns Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest shellfish company on the West Coast. Most oystermen don't see a real problem with the chemical, and they're not above a selective use of Willapa's famous selling point to bolster their position.
"Willapa Bay is the cleanest estuary in the U.S., and we've been using Carbaryl for 40 years," Brian Sheldon says. "I mean, where's the beef?"
The Sheldons are particularly fierce defenders against the bay's invasive species, and say they're considered troublemakers for their efforts to solve things a different way. Take, for instance, their attempt to control Spartina grass, which creeps out from the shoreline and invades the tideflats.
The state Department of Natural Resources has been working on the issue for nearly 10 years, and has seen progress in the last two by working with the growers, said Wendy Brown, invasive-species program manager.
The Sheldons, however, wanted to go their own way. Amateur inventors, they have a vast barn full of rusty contraptions created to cut back the grass in a way that doesn't harm the bay. Dick Sheldon says the state wouldn't let him use them — a permitting issue — and continues to distrust their efforts.
"You could make a story as long as the Bible on this type of crap," he says. "I could have saved the state (a lot of money) if they'd just left me alone."
Paul Lenz, 43, has worked on the shucking line at the Jolly Roger processing plant since 1992. With an efficient jab, twist and flip, he can shuck about 500 large oysters in an hour.
BEING LEFT ALONE is what many oyster farmers want most. Head down, work hard: That's the way they like to do it. Because when they look up, not everyone can agree on what's in front of them.
Practically all of them will admit they think their way of doing things is best, and they quickly disagree on everything from the direction the industry should take to the way an oyster should be grown.
Though several associations are meant to deal with local and regional issues in the business, there is no state oyster commission like there is for other high-profile Washington crops, such as the apple. Some have tried to unite the farmers under an agricultural commission in the name of marketing, but the farmers have resisted.
Bill Dewey, of the regional association, said that, like anything, you have a few doing the work for many.
Alex Mack, 16, reaches into the muddy water to pick oysters for Oysterville Sea Farms. Though high-school kids occasionally lend oyster farmers a set of hands, most work retail jobs in nearby Long Beach. Mack took the job because his brother was doing it, he gets a good workout and it fit well with his school schedule.
"They just go about their business and hope the issues don't come back to bite them," he says, adding that fewer than a dozen of the hundreds of farmers in Willapa have more than 25 employees. "When you're just getting by, you've got to pay attention to No. 1."
And though growers don't like the idea of a commission, many feel their oyster could use the PR.
Though the bay's fruits enjoy a fine reputation in water-quality circles, the average consumer won't necessarily know that the oyster they're eating came from Willapa. The current trend is to focus more on the species, such as Pacific, Olympia or Kumamoto, than on its origin.
But Taylor says he is beginning to see a shift as oyster bars strive to feature a more specialized product.
"It's kind of like your wines," he says. "You have your species of grape but you also have the region, and you're starting to see more of that regional aspect with oysters."
That's the kind of thinking Dan Driscoll can get behind.
Once the Pacific County seat and hub of the oyster industry during the Gold Rush years, Oysterville is now a near-ghost town full of picturesque summer homes and historic buildings such as this schoolhouse, built in 1907.
Though the Long Beach peninsula is still home to many farms, Driscoll is the last oysterman in Oysterville, once the hub of industry activity in that first and foolish boom. Now, it's a nearly-deserted, one-street town near the tip of the peninsula, given over to preservation efforts and summer homes. "I feel compelled to be here," Driscoll says. "I think it would be really sad for a town called Oysterville not to have any oyster farmers in it."
His cannery, nearly 80 years old, is a preservation-in-process perched on the edge of the bay, half slumped over with age, half lovingly restored. He lives alone in a modest house a hundred yards away. "Sitting up here is like watching the world breathe," he says from his kitchen window overlooking the bay. He'll go back out to the beds tomorrow night, rustle up whatever high-school kids are looking for work, pick another grip of oysters to sell in the shell. And when he's done, he'll head back up to his house, maybe have a cocoa and Crown Royale and wait for his industry to settle into its latest self, watching the world breathe from his kitchen window.
Lisa Heyamoto is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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