man tonging oysters

History of Oystertown

It is the home of contented oysters.

Willapa Bay is a unique mixture of salt and fresh waters providing a pristine estuary for the hard-shelled taste-treats.

Here oysters are grown, harvested, and shipped across the nation and around the world. The bay has well earned the title of Oyster Capital of the West Coast. The oysters bring an estimated $20 million dollars to the local economy annually.

No other company in Pacific County can boast the payroll dollar output of the oyster industry, according to the auditor for the Port of Peninsula at Nahcotta.

Three companies; the Wiegardt family owned Jolly Roger Seafood, Bendiksen’s East Point Seafood Co., and Hilton’s Coast Oyster Co. handle the bulk of the local oystering operations, with independent oyster growers dealing with the remainder.

Once a highly seasonal operation, oystering has become a year-around proposition, with the mollusks constantly being moved to different beds to enhance their growth.

Spring and summertime are primarily seasons for the companies to monitor natural spawning, lay out shells upon which to set the “spat” — or oyster larvae — and set the spat on shells in setting tanks. But it’s no quick process. It takes three to four years from spat to dining table.

Fall and winter are the seasons for primary oyster gathering, shell opening, canning and shipping. The busiest months are October through December when Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons generate peak demand.

Oyster gathering in Willapa Bay is limited to commercial growing and harvesting. The Port of Peninsula leases more port-owned tidelands to the oyster industry than any other public port in the United States.

To grow oysters, four basic techniques generally are used, although experimentation is always under way.

The most common method of oyster growing is accomplished by placing spat-covered shells on oyster beds in the Bay.

Another method, called long lining, strings a line through shells and hangs them between poles set in the Bay.

In a third method, immature oysters are placed on trays or other submerged objects rather than on the Bay floor.

The newest method, the non-sexed oyster method, uses oysters that have no sex and cannot reproduce. Called triploid, these oysters have been genetically altered through mechanical or chemical means. This method effectively neuters the oyster. Because the oysters are not concerned with reproducing, they stay firm and tasty, and can be harvested throughout the year.

Mountains of bleached shells from the oystering operations can be seen at the Port of Peninsula at Nahcotta, where both Jolly Roger and East Point have stores selling oysters and other seafood. The canneries themselves, however, generally do not conduct tours.

The mid-19th century pioneers who founded the local oyster industry found a small oyster, Ostrea Lurida, native to Willapa Bay.

A series of freezing winters in the 1880s wiped them out. A Japanese oyster, Ostrea Giga, later was imported to the bay. They flourished because of better growing conditions than in Japan, and acquired a unique flavor and texture all their own.

But remember, if you have a hankering to harvest a few oysters on your own, no public oyster harvesting is available anywhere on the Willapa Bay tidelands. All oysters are privately owned and it is a violation of law to remove the oysters or the shells from the tidelands. Oysters may be purchased at various places along the Peninsula, and shells sometimes can be found on the ocean beaches