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Consuming and Conserving Oysters at Puget Sound’s Community Shellfish Farms

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

Another couple dozen Pacific oysters clatter along a rocky shore crawling with kelp crabs. We pick out the heftiest oysters from the pile as Josh Bouma tromps through the shallow tidelands, replacing and retying baskets filled with new oyster seed.

It’s a unique thing to be out here on a day like this, working with other people interested in the dynamics of keeping this beach healthy,” he says, and looks out upon the shores exposed only for a few hours each month, during low tide.

Bouma is the manager of this shellfish farm on Bainbridge Island’s Port Madison tidelands, as well as a marine shellfish biologist for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF), a non-profit that began managing the habitat in 2010. In the first year they pumped out nearly 1500 gallons of sewage, all for the sake of these oysters—which are not only delicious, but also key to maintaining the health of marine ecosystems in Puget Sound.

Photos: Puget Sound Restoration Fund / Facebook.

Photos: Puget Sound Restoration Fund / Facebook.

The Port Madison farm was founded in 2010, after the success of two similar PSRF efforts to restore shellfish growing areas using their model of community-supported aquaculture (CSA). Essentially, this means that locals are encouraged to volunteer at the farms and allowed to purchase annual CSA memberships of varying degrees that supply them with fresh oysters after each harvest.

This involving approach is in part the work of Betsy Peabody, who founded PSRF in 1997 with “zero money but lots of dreams”—namely, to develop active efforts to restore endangered marine habitats like the one at Drayton Harbor, a former commercial shellfish area that the Department of Health had declared unfit for harvesting due to pollution.

After years of research without results, Peabody decided it was time to act. She literally planted the seeds for her first community shellfish farm in 2001, motivating her and her partners to have them ready for harvest and consumption within three years.

That meant we needed to get our work done by then,” Peabody explains. “We had a laundry list of potential pollution sources, so we set the deadline and started checking them off.”

When the seeds were full-grown, the shellfish farm had met state water quality standards, thanks to the oysters themselves, each of which naturally filters as much as 20 gallons of water per day, as well as the volunteers helping PSRF’s restoration efforts.

It was an important lesson in building community around resources that define a place,” Peabody says. “If people have direct harvesting experiences like this, it becomes important to them to reduce pollution. They get invested, and doing that became another branch of the organization.”

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Another community farm was founded at Henderson Inlet near Olympia in 2003, where they managed to restore 340 acres of tideland for shellfish harvest and tribal use despite continued shoreline development in the area. Port Madison followed seven years later, another community caring for the oysters who in turn care for our waterways.

Though it served as the model upon which the Port Madison and Henderson Inlet farms were built, PSRF no longer manages the tidelands at Drayton Harbor. With a whopping 810 acres restored harvest, the farm transitioned to a commercial venture. Water quality monitoring and pollution control continue in the area as the newly-minted Drayton Harbor Oyster Co., managed by habitat biologist Steve Seymour with his son, finds its footing.

They invested themselves in getting to that next stage,” Peabody says. “That was like the completion of our original goal, to restore recreational and commercial harvest in that area.”

Operating on tidelands owned by the nearby Bloedel Reserve, the Port Madison operation is too small to share the same objective. As part of their agreement with the surrounding community, the farm has little opportunity to grow, forcing PSRF to cap Port Madison CSA memberships around 75 per year. They’ve had a full roster of members the past several years, having grown in popularity and profile every year since the first, when they sold only six memberships.

The farm is productive despite its size, and the season’s first harvest yields about 250 dozen ready-to-shuck oysters, which must be bagged and cooled to prevent naturally-occurring biotoxins like vibrio and paralytic shellfish poisoning from contaminating the raw shellfish.

Some of the oysters harvested today will go to local restaurants and seafood markets, Bouma explains, but most are still reserved for the CSA members themselves, and with good reason. It’s the best way to get exposure for the project, which is very much about raising awareness and community outreach.

When we sell them to a grocer or restaurant, we don’t know the story of this project is getting told,” Bouma says. “Then it’s just another oyster—not something tied to this program of maintaining Puget Sound’s health.”

With such a small scale relative to the overarching problem, the Port Madison farm isn’t a solution for the overarching problems of ocean acidification and habitat loss, but it is a worthy example of the personal responsibility we can take as individuals and as communities to care for our coastlines. If you can experience the taste and texture of a fresh-shucked oyster on a sunny spring day, you’ll want to make sure future generations can too.

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