FOR AN OYSTER LOVER, speeding down the Willapa River in an open boat toward Willapa Bay and its oyster beds must be like approaching the Celestial City. Even if it is cold for May, and gray, and spitting rain, everyone in the boat is smiling beatifically.
Approximately 15 percent of the oysters consumed in the United States come from Willapa Bay, just north of the mouth of the Columbia River. Ten thousand acres of the bay are devoted to oyster farming. Coast Seafood, whose CFO Kay Cogan ’79 and operations manager Tim Morris are escorting me to oyster heaven, is the largest oyster producer in the country, providing nearly 400,000 gallons of shucked oysters per year, not only from Willapa Bay, but also Grays Harbor, Puget Sound, and Humboldt Bay in California. Coast produces better than 25 percent of the state’s oysters.
As we emerge from the river’s mouth into the bay, Morris notes a workboat beached on a tidal flat off to our left. There are no waves of greeting from the crew, who must be disgusted with their skipper, who apparently misjudged a channel and the tide. There’s no money to be made until the tide refloats their boat and they can reach the bed they’d come to harvest.
As we turn south, we pass a large exposed sandbar populated by scores of seals, all eyes on us, a few waddling into the water, but mostly waiting for the same sun we’re all expecting to break through the heavy overcast any minute now.
Morris pulls our boat up to the shore of a 15-acre oyster bed exposed by the low tide, and we climb out. Cogan gives me some pointers in walking over the oyster flats. The main goal is to not get both feet stuck at the same time. Keep the main pressure on the balls of your feet, she says.
Long parallel lines of oyster clusters strung on yellow rope stretch across the exposed mud beds. The first thing I’d noticed after the “South Bend: Oyster Capital of the World” sign the night before was the mountain of oyster shells along the highway. These shells will be the mother shells for the babies. Coast has hatcheries in Quilcene, on the Hood Canal, and near Kona, Hawaii. The larvae from Kona are sold to third parties or shipped back to Quilcene. Bags of shells, called “cultch” in the trade, are trucked from the processing plant in South Bend to Quilcene, where they are immersed in tanks with the young oysters, which attach themselves to the shell. The “seed” is moved to Coast’s nurseries at Quilcene on Willapa Bay, or Humboldt Bay in northern California for 3-8 months to grow and mature a bit before being transferred to the beds where they’ll live out their lives.
Coast is moving much of its oyster production to a “long-line” versus a “bottom-culture” farming system. Bottom-culture is just that, the young oysters spread across a suitable bed. Long-line raises the oysters off the bottom, greatly increasing productivity. The mother shells are threaded onto lines, which are strung on PVC pipes stuck into the bottom. According to Coast figures, long-line requires 136 seed bags per acre to yield 6.7 gallons of oysters per bag, totalling more than 900 gallons of oysters per acre. Hanging the oysters off the bottom makes it easier for the oysters to feed and reduces predation by crabs and other oyster lovers.
But not by us! Morris slips his oyster knife into a cluster of oysters, pries one open, and hands me an oyster on its half-shell, as fresh as it gets.
I recall an earlier instance in which, in the throes of enjoying an Olympia oyster (Ostrea conchaphila), I dismissed the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas, literally “big oyster”) as inferior. I now take that back. Olympias are wonderful. But they are quite different pleasures. Now, slowly chewing a Pacific while standing in the bay from which it came?
This oyster is plump and rich and briny. It is so good.
I actually read an assessment of the Pacific recently in which it was criticized for exactly these qualities. Oh, and for being too “creamy.” I believe this criticism came from an admirer of the relatively scrawny, metallic, and austere Eastern oyster.
Easterns were grown here in the early twentieth century, with uneven success, and I understand they’re making a minor comeback. The native Olympics had been nearly wiped out by oystermen who had yet to learn that everything is finite—and that oysters prefer oyster shell on which to grow. The Olympics were dredged up and shipped to California and points east, their shells unreturned, until they were no more, except for a few hidden here and there in unnoticed inlets. They are, fortunately, reviving in areas around the Sound. (See “Eating Well to Save the Sound,” Summer 2006) Tasty as they are, however, they are slow-growing and generally unprofitable.
As a replacement, the Pacifics were introduced from Japan, back in the days before anyone worried about introducing exotic species into an ecosystem. Fortunate for us oyster-philes. Also fortunate is the fact that they love it here. They do prefer a little warmer water in which to spawn. But that’s what hatcheries in Kona are for. This could, it occurs to me, also be a natural curb on their dominance of the ecosytem.
Coast, which sells its oysters under the “Hilton’s Willapoint” brand, also grows the plump and fruity Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), also from Japan, as well as Manilla clams and mussels. But the piece de resistance for the lover of the oyster who has no patience with the travails of procreation is the triploid oyster.
You’ve no doubt heard the truism that oysters must be eaten only in months that have an “r” in them. There is a grain of truth in this, but not for the health reasons commonly imagined.
Oysters spawn in the summer months (no r’s), in the process of which they produce millions of sperm and eggs (one of the reasons, perhaps, for the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac). As a result they become watery and flaccid, losing as much as a quarter of their mass. In other words, during the non-r months, they aren’t as tasty as they are the rest of the year.
Enter the triploid. Coast uses a simple heating process to increase the number of a larva’s chromosomes. The result, a triploid, is sterile. In other words when all the other oysters in the sea are wasting themselves in rampant reproduction, the triploids are doing nothing more than they do the rest of the year, getting fat and sweet. There is indeed such a thing as progress.
In spite of the good time we’re having, Cogan and Morris are actually doing inventory. With records of past yields of a bed and an accounting of its seeding, Cogan can calculate the next crop. What they’re doing today is checking simply to make sure the bed’s health and growth meet their expectations.
Cogan has been with Coast for 21 years, Morris for nearly the same time. They both clearly love their work. Morris hands me another oyster.
These are beautiful, says Cogan, surveying the object of her inventory, the long-lines of Crassostrea gigas stretching across the beds in perfectly sumptuous symmetry.