Oyster Farming in Washington, Part 1

  • By Cynthia Nims
  • Posted 8/11/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21070

Washington's oyster industry has experienced many triumphs and challenges in its century-plus of existence, with a wide range of factors playing a part. Elements as disparate as California's Gold Rush, pulp mills, and World War II share in the industry's story. The foundation of the state's oyster culture dates to the work done by thousands of feet of glacier advancing southward over many thousands of years. When the glacial ice melted and receded, it left a dramatic landscape that includes Puget Sound and Hood Canal. If not for this and other geological events that shaped the state's waterways, the story of oysters in Washington would be far less compelling. Western Washington has an environment exceptionally conducive to oysters. The bays and inlets, tidal activity, climate, and overall geography produce a habitat that has been called "oyster nirvana" (Jacobsen, 165). Add to that the tenacity, ingenuity, hard work, and scientific know-how of countless individuals. These forces together made Washington the No. 1 oyster-growing state in the country, and among the most celebrated and valued sources of oysters in the world. One city on Willapa Bay, South Bend, proclaims itself to be no less than the "Oyster Capital of the World."

The Native Oyster

Though five species of oysters are grown in Washington waters today, only one is naturally at home here: the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida), known early on simply as the native oyster. Middens -- ancient mounds of discarded shells and other debris -- show evidence of the oyster's importance to Native populations of the region for countless generations. This small oyster was especially prolific in Willapa Bay and southern Puget Sound. Until the late nineteenth century, this was the only oyster to be found in Washington waters.

A naturalist with Captain George Vancouver's 1792 expedition to the region is said to have noted a bountiful supply of oysters on tidelands of Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. Native tribes throughout the Puget Sound region relied on the oyster not only for sustenance but also customs and trade. Early European settlers harvested the oysters for their own consumption and likely small-scale local trade.

The first significant oyster commerce in Washington came in response to San Francisco oyster lovers' seemingly insatiable appetite for the bivalves. Mark Twain was a particularly devoted connoisseur during a two-year Bay Area stint in the 1860s. That penchant for oysters, coupled with the boom in population following the historic strike of gold nearby, gave Washington's oyster industry a boost in the mid-1800s. Enterprising oystermen in Washington established transport of oysters to San Francisco, helping meet the demand. The first shipload to head south is said to have been in 1851, captained by Charles J. W. Russell, who was among the first non-Native settlers on Shoalwater (now Willapa) Bay.

"The same basket [of oysters] that cost $1 at the source could command $30 at San Francisco's wholesale seafood markets. The wholesale price was then doubled by the owners of restaurants and retail shops. No wonder Washington's shellfish beds had such appeal with ship owners. One schooner captain, Thomas J. Foster, is said to have sailed between San Francisco and Shoal-Water 74 times from 1875 to 1880 -- on average, a trip every 25 days" (Heaven on the Half Shell, 43)

The many southbound shipments of oysters over a couple of decades kept San Francisco slurpers content until their attention turned to the Eastern species of oyster (Crassostrea virginica) that began arriving by train from the other coast. This oyster's size and flavor characteristics appealed more to the growing population of newcomers. And it's an oyster that would soon show up in Washington's story as well. California's appetite for Washington's oysters began to wane in the latter 1800s, but it had already helped lay a foundation for an industry that still thrives today.

It has been said that the beloved little native oyster is part of the reason that Olympia won the bid to become the state capital, the city having been the provisional capital of the Washington Territory since 1853. Following statehood, other cities vied for the designation of state capital. Olympians, determined to continue the capital's status, developed a campaign of public meetings that were followed by an oyster dinner. "The oysters were so well liked that much publicity was given, not only to the merit of the arguments, but to the merit of the oysters. ... Olympia won the election, and the oyster dinners were given the credit. From that time on, the oysters were known as 'Olympia oysters'" (The Rise and Decline, 33)

A Developing Industry

For most of the second half of the nineteenth century, the business of oystering entailed harvest and selling of wild Olympia oysters from their natural beds. As the turn of the century approached, enterprises began evolving from simple collection to more active cultivation -- and not only cultivation of the native oyster, but other species soon to be introduced. As production grew, so did development of infrastructure to support the harvest, shucking, packing, and shipment of oysters.

Among the first such businesses was the Olympia Oyster Company, established in 1878, which in four decades became "the largest oyster company in the State of Washington ... having now control over about one-third of the producing beds on Puget Sound" ("Thurston County ...," 154). The Olympia Oyster Company was seen as progressive in its approach to the business, which included employing the most up-to-date equipment for handling and processing its oysters.

In 1893, J. J. Brenner Oyster Company was founded by John Joseph "Jack" Brenner (1860-1958). The story of Brenner's life "is enveloped in, and becomes part of, the story of the Olympia oyster" (The Rise and Decline, 17). His packing house built in Olympia that year was the first in a series of plants for shucking, packing, and shipping that grew in size and technology with the growing company, and industry.

E. N. (Earl) Steele (1881-1968), later a leader in the industry and chronicler of its history, was a lawyer by trade. In 1905, a friend and client left Steele administrator of an oyster business, his first step in the oyster trade. In 1923, Steele and John Barnes purchased the Pearl Oyster Company from J. Emy Tsukimoto and Joe Miyagi, soon establishing the Rock Point Oyster Company. Steele's books, The Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster and The Immigrant Oyster, remain valued reflections on the establishment and growth of the industry. He was among the charter members of the Olympia Oyster Growers Association, precursor to the current Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. The Olympia Oyster Company, J. J. Brenner Oyster Company, and Rock Point Oyster Company are still growing and selling oysters today.

Also playing an idelible role in the early decades of oyster farming was Dr. Trevor Kincaid (1872-1970). Kincaid joined the biology department of the University of Washington in 1895 and retired in 1942, staying on as professor emeritus of the zoology department for a number of years. He is the namesake of Kincaid Hall on the campus. A man of many interests, with much work in the field of entomology, Kincaid's efforts to understand how to help oysters thrive in Washington waters earned him the moniker "father of the Pacific Northwest oyster industry."

Early Aquaculture

It wasn't until natural beds began being managed with oyster propagation in mind that the business of farming oysters took hold. These early steps set the stage for today's vibrant industry, with new innovation, and significant legislation, paving the way just before the turn of the twentieth century. With passage of the Callow Act and the Bush Act in the 1890s, investment in oystering took on a new emphasis. Tidelands acquired under the provisions of the Callow and Bush acts could be used for the sole purpose of cultivating oysters, an early and meaningful acknowledgement by the state's leaders that this natural resource represented great value, and that thoughtful stewardship of oyster beds was important. 

Also in the late 1800s, an innovation in the form of a dike system was introduced to the region. Low wood frames arranged on tideflats to enclose a layer of gravel created a terraced protective area in which, when the tide went out, water would be retained, keeping the small Olympia oysters submerged. This helped mitigate exposure of the oysters to the extremes of freezing in winter or overheating in summer.

Dikes increased survivability of Olympia oysters in their natural beds, and allowed growers to expand production onto tidal grounds where oysters had not naturally grown before. Production levels jumped after the implementation of dikes, though building them could be tricky because construction schedules were dictated by the tides. These dikes, framed with wood, were effective but often didn't last more than a couple of years thanks to boring animals and harsh weather. Eventually the original wooden dikes gave way to concrete, a development of interest enough to be featured in a 1920 issue of Popular Mechanics. A year prior to that article, there had been a particularly harsh winter storm. The oysters protected in the dikes remained unharmed, the magazine noted, while those exposed on natural beds perished.

The addition of dikes was the first of numerous technologies developed to aid in the culture of oysters. Oystermen saw a great deal of promise in these first couple of decades of the state's oyster farming operations, both in the expansion and development of oyster production, and the growth of the market for their products.

Expanding in Scope

It wouldn't be long, however, before Washington's stock of native oysters began to decline. One key culprit was effluent from pulp and paper mills that were another part of the region's economic development. As early as 1927, concerns were voiced by oyster and clam farmers that consideration be given to the potentially destructive impact the mills' waste could have on the shellfish habitat. Occasional weather extremes, overharvest, and natural predators took their toll on the population of Olympia oysters as well.

Some of the growing population of newcomers to Washington brought with them a taste for the native oyster of the Atlantic Coast, the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), larger and milder than the little West Coast native with its sweet but coppery flavor. This echoes a similar shift in oyster favor earlier displayed in San Francisco.

In 1896, enterprising Willapa Bay oysterman Meinert Wachsmuth brought in a shipment of Eastern oyster seed to transplant on Willapa beaches. This helped launch a mini-boom in the local harvest of Eastern oysters, from these southwest Washington waters, as well as from Puget Sound and Samish Bay. Worthy of a 1902 item in The Seattle Daily Times was the announcement of a carload of seed oysters from Connecticut, received by the Bellingham Bay Oyster Company and destined for the company's acreage on the Samish Flats. For a time, after brief experimentation with the transplanted species, there was growing confidence that this Eastern oyster would become a mainstay of the industry.

For the long term, however, the proposition would prove less than fruitful. Eastern oysters managed fine as transplants for a couple of decades, the oyster seed growing for a year or two before harvest and sale. But they never settled in like a local, failing to reproduce naturally in Washington's colder waters. Increasing cost of seed from Eastern growers (both the seed itself, and the transport) made the economics of continuing the endeavor untenable. All of which was compounded by a natural die-off of Eastern oysters in the late 1910s.

The New Era of Pacific Oysters

With native Olympia oysters on a slow decline and Eastern oysters a bust, there could have been reason to worry this oyster business wasn't in it for the long haul. But there was a new player waiting in the wings, one that would do much more than soften the blow of losses of Olympias and Easterns. This oyster would, over time, completely change the face of the Washington oyster industry.

In the early 1910s, oyster specialists on both sides of the Pacific began contemplating whether oysters native to Japan might take well to Washington waters. Among them was a Japanese professor of zoology who paid a visit to his colleague Dr. Kincaid at the University of Washington in September 1912. In remarks while in Seattle, the professor asserted that "the Japanese oysters were better adapted to the Pacific Coast of the country for transplanting than were American oysters from the Atlantic coast" ("Japanese Scientist ..."). Further, according to The Seattle Daily Times, the visiting professor "believed the oyster trade between Japan and America was destined to grow greatly in the next decade" ("Japanese Scientist ...")  

In late 1912, a shipment of 60,000 seed oysters was received for a trial run orchestrated by Dr. Kincaid, based on expectations that these oysters native to Japan would grow well here. That same decade, J. Emy Tsukimoto and Joe Miyagi were researching places where they could conduct their own experiment with transplanting Pacific oysters from Japan. Both had lived in Olympia, worked with oyster operations in that area, and were eager to combine their experience with knowledge of oyster culture in their native Japan.

After they acquired 600 acres of tidelands on Samish Bay, the first shipment of 400 cases of oyster seed for their Pearl Oyster Company arrived in 1919. Despite all efforts to accommodate the oysters for the journey of about 16 days, most of the oysters died en route or soon after arrival. The oysters were dumped into Samish Bay nonetheless. Unbeknownst to the oystermen, they were inadvertently planting millions of baby Pacific oysters, as the shells of those expired oysters were laden with viable spat. With that, the farming of Pacific oysters in Washington waters began to take shape in Samish Bay.

This new industry "first became commercially active in 1923, and remained a local industry until 1928 when test plantings of seed were made in Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor, and various locations in Puget Sound. From that time on planting of seed was extended rapidly and the oysters thrived and developed rapidly" (The Immigrant, 31).

It was soon clear that the Pacific oyster would be far better acclimated to Washington waters than Eastern oysters ever were. In Willapa Bay, the oysters "grew like weeds," according to Lee Wiegardt, whose grandfather Heinrich Julius Wiegardt was a pioneer on the bay. So much so that they built a cannery to process some of the harvest, unable to keep up with marketing all the oysters in fresh form. Oysters took well to canning, creating a new product for farmers that extended oyster season, and these canned oysters were more transportation-friendly for shipping throughout the country.

Building an audience for this new, larger oyster had its hurdles. Critics more familiar, and delighted, with the Eastern and Olympia oysters found the larger Pacific oysters unattractive and unappealing, dismissed as unworthy for serious culinary consideration. Some growers were skeptical, too, while retailers and restaurateurs with customers enamored of the Eastern oyster were hard-pressed to muster enthusiasm for the new Pacifics. But over time, tastes began to shift again.

Toward Self-Reliance

That the imported oysters from Japan grew well in Washington waters was one thing. But as was true with Eastern oysters, the business model of continually shipping seed for transplant demanded a significant investment for oyster farmers. As early as the 1920s, not all that long after they first arrived, studies began to better understand conditions under which those oysters might naturally spawn in Washington. It was a subject of particular interest to Dr. Kincaid, who was keen to determine what kind of environment would be required to raise oyster larvae in a controlled setting. Wrote oysterman Earl Steele: "He realized even better than we the difficulties and expense we would have if we always had to import seed from Japan" (The Immigrant, 18).

Early on, an association was made between water temperature and spawning, a condition Kincaid witnessed on a hot day perched on a float as the tide slowly rose over the sun-warmed beach. He collected some of the spawn, easily visible as milky swirls in the water. As exciting a discovery as that was, it did not immediately alter the course of oyster farming. It would be many years, decades, even, before these field observations would be successfully replicated in the controlled environment of a hatchery to produce oyster larvae for farming. The conditions existed naturally in pockets of oyster habitat, but not at a scale that could support the industry much beyond the inlets and bays where that natural spawn occurred.

Outside forces intervened with the onset of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, internment of more than 12,000 Washington residents of Japanese descent began in 1942, an event of terrible social and economic impact. In the oyster industry, it meant the loss of much of its skilled and dedicated workers, leaving some oyster beds abandoned in the case of Japanese-owned operations. There was a halt to shipments from Japan of oyster seed on which oyster farmers in the state had come to rely. Oyster farmers managed through the challenging war years, in part due to weather conditions of the previous few years that had left oyster beds particularly full of product. Operators could slow the rate of harvest, leaving some oysters for later collection, or can oysters for shipment throughout the country. The War Department also purchased oysters for feeding troops.

In 1946, for the first time since the war, cases of seed oysters were imported from Japan. While research and experiments continued in order to establish reliable local production of oyster seed to sustain the industry, it would be years before reliance on imported seed would fully subside.

The oyster industry was not without other challenges, including predatory species, ongoing pollution issues, disease, and generally rising costs of doing business. A slump in the industry began around 1955 and continued for a couple of decades, reflected by severe decreases in harvest. It may have looked to some as if the oyster farming industry of Washington was fighting for survival. As for that seemingly unattainable goal -- consistently available locally produced oyster seed from a controlled environment? There was reason to feel dismayed after decades of experiments produced disappointing outcomes. Wrote Steele in his 1964 book: "Each year new tricks are being pulled out of the bag, but to date they have not been entirely successful. ... Future failure or success is anyone's guess. I still have wishful thinking, but my candid opinion is that to produce oyster seed artificially in commercial quantities, and at a reasonable cost, would be a miracle" (The Immigrant). 

A miracle? Perhaps not. But there would be more work ahead before the successful establishment of oyster hatcheries marked a turning point for the industry. The same kind of tenacity, ingenuity, hard work, and know-how that got the industry started would see it through the slump and into the twenty-first century.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.

Coming soon: Oyster Farming in Washington, Part 2


Rowan Jacobsen, A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007), pp. 165, 166; David G. Gordon, Nancy E. Blanton, Terry Y Nosho, Heaven on the Half Shell: The Story of the Northwest's Love Affair with the Oyster (Seattle: Washington Sea Grand Program, and Portland, Oregon: WestWinds Press, 2001) pp. 42, 43, 110; E. N. Steele, The Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster (Elman, Washington: Fulco Publications, 1957), pp. 17, 33, 52; E. N. Steele, The Immigrant Oyster (Olympica, Washington: Warren's Quick Print, 1964), pp. 1, 3, 6, 18, 20, 31, 103; Sydney Stevens, Images of America: Oysterville (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing), pp. 72, 96; Andrew Beahrs, "Heaven on the Half Shell," Smithsonian, June, 2012 pp. 62-69; "Thurston County Oyster Industry," The Coast, Volume 17, No. 3, March 1909, pp. 152-156; Cleveland Gaines, "Concrete Dikes Used in Oyster Culture," Popular Mechanics Magazine, Vol 34, No 5  November 1920, pp. 704-705; "Seed Oysters Received," The Seattle Daily Times, May 1, 1902, p. 4; "Japanese Scientist Guest at University," Ibid., September 24, 1912, p. 13; "Kincaid Orders Oysters," Ibid., December 15, 1912, p. 26; "Confer on Plans to Guard Oyster and Clam Beds," Ibid., January 23, 1927, p. 12; Roland Ryder-Smith, "Wealth on the Half Shell -- State's Oyster Industry," The Seattle Times, August 4, 1946, p. 2; "U.W. Building Name Honors 'Father' of Oyster Industry," Ibid., Dec. 21, 1969, p. C1; "Trevor Kincaid, 97, Zoologist, Dies," Ibid., July 3, 1970, p. C18; "Tribe Celebrates Oyster's Rebound," Ibid., September 7, 2004, p. B7; Enoch Anderson, "May Change Oyster Crop," The Seattle Sunday Times, February 23, 1913, p. 20; Tristan Peter Contesse with Betsy Peabody, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, "Reestablishing Olympia Oyster Populations in Puget Sound, Washington," Washington Sea Grant Program, August, 2005; "Oyster Legislation in Washington," Senate Journal of the Twelfth Legislature of the State of Washington, Olympia, Washington, 1911, pg. 605; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Olympia -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma) and "Japanese Americans are ordered to evacuate Seattle on April 21, 1942" (by Greg Lange), historylink.org (accessed June 16, 2020); "Shellfish in Washington" Washington Sea Grant Program, accessed June 16, 2020 (wsg.washington.edu/our-northwest/shellfish/); "Oyster Stew: Celebrating 100 Years of Oyster Culture in Washington State," Washington Sea Grant Program, accessed June 16, 2020 (wsg.washington.edu/oysterstew); Author conversation with Bruce Brenner, President, JJ Brenner Oyster Co. and input from Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association; notes in possession of Cynthian Nims. 







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