Most people either love or hate oysters. If you’re an oyster lover, you probably have your favorite place to indulge in oysters on the half shell, fried oysters, or Oyster Rockefeller. There’s something about the fresh salty taste of an oyster that keeps us coming back for more. But It’s not easy being an oyster farmer. Fluctuating water temperatures, environmental regulation, competition, and sometimes good-old-fashioned luck seem to make it a feast or famine enterprise. We’re fortunate to have some of the best oysters in the world grown right here in our backyard. Oyster farming is more than a tradition. It has a significant impact on our local economy.

People take their oyster shucking seriouly at the Jazz and Oyster Festival on Willapa Bay. Photo credit: Beth Bauer

Willapa Bay is famous for many things, and its abundance of oysters is at the top of the list. Willapa Bay produces an astonishing 25 percent of all oysters harvested in the United States. It also supplies about 2,000, jobs, and contributes an estimated $102 million annually in revenue to our area.

Oyster farmers have a substantial effect on our environment because they own the rights to the tidelands where they harvest. That ownership gives them a vested interest in protecting the waters they farm. Their income depends on it. The degree of tidal ownership in Willapa Bay and other areas in Washington is unique. It explains why our oyster growers have been so fruitful in both propagating oysters and protecting the health of Washington’s waters.

Oysters are mollusks and are in the same zoological phylum as the mussel, snail, clam, abalone, octopus and squid. They’re also classified as bivalves because their shells contain two parts held together by an elastic ligament hinge. Did you know that an oyster makes its own shell by secreting calcium from glandular tissue in its soft flesh? Across the globe, there are more than 100 types of oyster varieties, but we think ours are the best!

The oyster scow stage at the Port of Peninsula is front and center at the annual Jazz & Oysters Festival. Photo credit: Beth Bauer

 Our area’s oyster-farming heritage started in the mid-1800s. Oysterville, on the Long Beach Peninsula, was incorporated in 1852. It was the epicenter of the burgeoning oyster industry and still is. Schooners full of oysters sailed from Willapa (then called Shoalwater) Bay to the shores of San Francisco where one oyster sometimes sold for a silver dollar! There are four types of oysters grown in our region.

The Olympic Oyster

The Olympia oyster is Washington’s only native oyster, but its abundance has weakened over time.  The exploitation of Olympia oyster from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s resulted in the near extermination of natural beds. Efforts to support the protection and regrowth of the indigenous oyster is gaining ground.

Pacific Oyster

The Pacific oyster was introduced from Japan, and it’s now the most important commercial species harvested along the Pacific Coast. It has naturalized in Hood Canal, Willapa Bay and Puget Sound.  Its preferred habitat is shallow subtidal rocks, soft mud, or firm sand or gravel.

Kumamoto Oyster

The Kumamoto Oyster is delicious and tender. It was once considered a subspecies of the Pacific oyster and came from southern Japan’s Kumamoto region. It’s easy to spot as it’s much smaller than other types of oysters and has cup-like shells that are round with widely spaced wavy ridges on the outside of the shell. It often contains a high ratio of meat in relations to its small size.

Belon Oyster

The Belon oyster is also known as the European Flat Oyster. It was initially brought over from Europe. It doesn’t occur naturally but is grown commercially in Puget Sound. Because of concerns that the species could reproduce in the warmer waters of Hood Canal and interfere with other species of shellfish, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t allow European Flat oysters to be cultivated in that area.

It takes a discerning foodie to notice the subtle differences between the different varieties of oyster. Maybe you should try some different species on the barbecue or half shell to find your own favorite. Get some friends or your family together and have an oyster feast! Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a pearl hidden in the flesh. Even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded with the tasty salty flavor of fresh oysters. 

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