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Return of the native

Tiny, sweet Olympia oysters, a West Coast treasure, are making a comeback.

December 07, 2005|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Shelton, Wash. — SEALED away tightly in its shell, an Olympia oyster isn't much to look at. It's small -- ranging from roughly the size of a quarter to a 50-cent piece -- and it's flat. If you came across it on one of the rocky beaches around here, you'd probably be more likely to try to skip it across the bay than eat it.

But pop the oyster open and slip it in your mouth. Despite its delicate size, an Olympia packs a wallop. The first thing that hits you is brine, like taking a sip of the ocean on a cold winter day. Then there is that distinctive cucumber/melon rind middle. When you bite down, the sea-slippery texture yields a surprising crunch. And then the flavor finishes with a bright, coppery aftertaste that lingers in your mouth for minutes.

If that were all there was to an Olympia, it would still be a great oyster. But to a real lover of Olys, there's so much more: centuries of history, including near-extinction and even the promise of a rebirth.

Place names on the Olympia Peninsula in western Washington read like an oyster lover's dream tasting menu. There's Totten Inlet, Samish Bay, Little Skookum, Yaquina Bay, Quilcene, Dabob Bay, Penn Cove, even Oysterville.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Oysters -- An article in Wednesday's Food section about Olympia oysters referred to Washington state's Olympic Peninsula as the Olympia Peninsula.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 14, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Oysters -- An article in last week's section on Olympia oysters referred to Washington state's Olympia Peninsula. It is the Olympic Peninsula.

But despite their local names, almost all of the oysters that come from these waters today hail from a variety that was introduced from Japan in the 1920s. In the beginning, there was only the Olympia (Ostrea lurida), the sole oyster native to the West Coast.

And there were plenty of them, up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Baja California (the oyster came to be called Olympia because that is the biggest town in the South Puget Sound where the commercial harvest was centered). Archeologists find ancient Indian villages by looking for midden mounds of discarded Olympia oyster shells. When California's '49ers returned to San Francisco to celebrate their gold strikes, they did it with Olympia oysters. Photographs from the early 20th century show gatherers harvesting oysters with rakes and pitchforks, there were so many.

But by the time those pictures were taken, the Olympias were already disappearing, done in by a combination of their own popularity and the increasing pollution of their home waters.

The Olympia harvest in Washington at the turn of the last century averaged about 63,000 gallons a year (it takes roughly 1,200 to 1,500 shucked oysters to make a gallon). That number slumped to 42,000 gallons in the 1920s and then it went into free-fall.

By the early 1940s, the average harvest was 10,000 gallons and by 1980, fewer than 600 gallons were harvested.

The first cause was overfishing -- there were so many oysters that it seemed inconceivable they would run out. So harvesters kept collecting as many as they could to meet what seemed an insatiable demand.

Even worse, many of the oysters were shipped in their shells to keep them alive. Oyster larvae attach themselves to discarded shells (called "cultch" in the trade) to live, and when those anchors are not returned to the water, the baby oysters drift and die.

Killer wood pulp

BUT the biggest factor was environmental. Silt from logging and urbanization up and down the West Coast clogged the estuaries where the oysters thrived. And then came the death blow: In 1927, a mill for making wood pulp was built in the heart of the South Puget Sound oyster territory, directly across from one of the prime oyster hatcheries, and began discharging untreated sulfite waste into the water. Not only did this kill the oysters, but it also destroyed their spawning grounds. The Olympias were practically wiped out.

With few Olympia oysters and almost no spawn, growers turned to other varieties: most notably Japanese Pacifics (Crassostrea gigas) and Kumamotos (Crassostrea sikamea), but also European flats (Ostrea edulis) and even Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) from the Atlantic. These varieties are not only hardier, but larger and faster growing, which made them popular among growers.

By far the most common oyster on the West Coast today is the Pacific, which is usually sold by the name of the place it was grown (locale is as critical to the flavor of an oyster as it is to a Pinot Noir grape). Today, there are more than 6 million pounds of Pacifics harvested annually in Washington state, compared with only 3,000 pounds of Olympias. Furthermore, Pacifics account for almost all of the harvest in Alaska, Oregon and California.

Although it is too early to proclaim a new boom for the Olympia oyster -- the harvest has remained fairly constant since the mid-1970s -- for the first time in a long time, its future looks bright.

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