Willapa Bay is one of those places you never forget. Great Blue Herons patrol the pristine water and feed on oyster and crab. Bald Eagles sore overhead and nest in the forest surrounding the Bay. Kayakers share the shallow waters with fishing boats, and hikers and campers recreate on the shore and explore Long Island.
Willapa Bay is a big shallow bay that is about 25 miles long. It’s situated along the Pacific Ocean just east of Long Beach, Washington running along the entire length of the peninsula. The quaint communities of North Cove and Tokeland are located along the northern entrance of the Bay, and Leadbetter Point State Park is at the southern entrance of the Bay. The Naselle River and Willapa River are tributaries to the Bay, and the entire area is a recreational and fisherman paradise.
If you love the thrill of hooking a colossal fish, then you’re going to love Willapa Bay. It’s is a favorite fishing spot for delicious Chinook salmon. The protected shape of the bay provides smaller boats easy access to bountiful salmon fishing. Most recreational fishing happens in late summer and early Autumn before commercial fishing begins.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife monitors and tracks the constant fluctuation in commercial shellfish harvest and fishing in the Bay, mainly due to environmental impacts such as warming water temperatures and changing ocean currents. Both issues can have a significant effect on both the quantity and quality of the catch.
Willapa Bay is renowned for many things, and an abundance of shellfish is one of them. It produces an astounding 25 percent of all oysters for the United States. In fact, it’s responsible for around 2,000, jobs, and contributes an estimated $102 million annually in revenue to the area.
The amount of crab from the Bay has fluctuated from a low of 2.5 million pounds in the early 1980s to an all-time high of over 25 million pounds during the 2004-2005 season. Some years, however, are what they call a “no crab Christmas” because the crab season, which usually commences near the first of December, doesn’t open until mid-January. That can make for a tough Christmas for many of the families that depend on the income from crab fishing.
The oyster industry got its start back in the 1850s and helped put Willapa Bay on the map. Back then, it was known as Shoalwater Bay. At the time, the leading market was in San Francisco, but the population was too much for the supply. Willapa Bay was the next prodigious estuary on the Pacific coast from California. Its shallow flats, often disastrous for small boats, but perfect for easy oyster harvesting during load tides, makes it an ideal place for growing and harvesting oysters. As a result, it’s known for producing some of the best oysters and manila clams in the world.
Recreation in and around Willapa Bay is almost as important as the shellfishing, and sometimes the two issues are at odds. Long Island is only reachable by boat. Once on the island, you’ll find over 10 miles of lovely old logging roads that have been transformed to trails. Unfortunately, it’s easy for hikers and campers on Long Island to easily and unknowingly upset the ecosystem. With over 5,600 acres and much of it being remnants of old growth forest, it’s the Pacific Coast’s second-biggest estuarine island. The rain forests on Long Island grow swiftly and are dense with wild huckleberries, spruce trees, and western hemlock. The island is also home to many black bears, deer, Roosevelt elk, beaver, rare and migratory birds, and playful river otters.
The agencies responsible for managing the Willapa Bay Wildlife Refuge undoubtedly struggle with creating policies that balance the environmental needs of the ecologically sensitive area with the wishes of the commercial fishing families and recreators. As with most industries, the regulations vary greatly, and it’s difficult for commercial fishing families to keep up. Sometimes, the policies are made by regulators with little to no experience in the industry, which frustrates the community.
The use of pesticides and invasive species, such as ghost shrimp, are huge issues right now for Willapa Bay. Oysters help keep the water clean. In fact, a single submerged oyster can filter up to seven gallons of water an hour, but invasive species and chemicals can damage the oysters. Since the mid-1900s, shellfish farmers have applied a pesticide called carbaryl to help control the invasive infestation on their shellfish beds. Currently, many shellfish farmers are phasing out the use of carbaryl, and are using a lower-impact, EPA-approved alternative known as imidacloprid. Only time will tell it’s long term impact.
Willapa Bay is one of the many crown jewels of our region. Together we can enjoy it, protect it, and share it.