Native Oysters Making a Comeback

By Christopher Dunagan, Kitsap Sun, October 6, 2006

Ten years ago, Puget Sound Restoration Fund was trying to figure out how a single nonprofit organization could improve Puget Sound.

After a few years of working on streams and wetlands, the Bainbridge Island-based group launched a major effort to restore the Olympia oyster to its natural place in the ecosystem. This small, native species had largely disappeared and was all but forgotten after the Pacific oyster was imported from Asia in the 1920s and became a commercial success.

By forming partnerships with shellfish growers and the U.S. Navy, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has planted oysters and laid down oyster shells to rebuild Olympia oyster populations throughout Puget Sound. Olympia’s Budd Inlet and Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay were among the first and best places to be planted, according to Betsy Peabody, the group’s executive director.

Much has been learned since those first efforts in 1999, Peabody said.

"We’ve discovered Olympia oysters in some surprising places, including a saltwater swimming pool on Bainbridge Island," she said.

Another abundant cache was found in a lagoon at Manchester Fuel Depot.

Since then, more than 7 million oysters have been placed at about 80 sites.

At first, those involved with the organization embraced the idea of placing baby oysters, known as "oyster seed," wherever they would grow, Peabody said. But experience has proven that many areas needed only an adequate substrate, such as oyster shells, on which oyster larvae can set and grow.

"I would say," said Peabody, "that the strategy has shifted toward habitat enhancement and away from seeding."

Oysters, which are filter-feeders, efficiently clean up waters where they live, removing algae that can affect eelgrass beds and create low-oxygen conditions. Peabody calls the little shellfish "ecological superstars."

In February, Puget Sound Restoration Fund will celebrate its 10th anniversary, following on the heels of a federal Community-based Restoration Program. The federal program, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by planting oysters on property near Olympia owned by Jay Manning. Manning, a Kitsap native, is director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At part of the celebration, Peabody and her group were recognized with a federal Excellence in Restoration Award.

The federal program has provided funds to help groups restore more than 680 acres of wetland, streamside and shoreline habitats in Washington state, according to NOAA officials. More than 8,000 volunteers have been involved in related groups.

Peabody says her group will continue to work on Olympia oyster restoration, while using the larger Pacific oysters for selected water-quality projects. One such effort is a recent pilot project in Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island.

"We have done some work with abalone in the San Juan Islands, where natural recovery may be unlikely," she said. "We’re very interested in getting involved with that."

Oyster Restoration

Olympia oyster sites in West Sound:

  • Liberty Bay near Scandia: Nearly 300 cubic yards of oyster shell was laid down as substrate for Olympia oysters. Remarkable success in 2005 and 2006 has led the group to plan an expansion next year and beyond.
  • Brownsville: A total of 130,000 oyster seed were spread in 2000 and 2002 with good success.
  • Dogfish Bay, Poulsbo: A total of 89,000 seed spread in 2000 and 2002 with good success.
  • Discovery Bay, Jefferson County: A total of 183,500 seed spread in 2003 and 2004. Because of silt, survival is poor.
  • Sandy Hood on Agate Passage: A total of 59,000 seed were spread at Kiana Lodge in 2002 and 2006. New baby oysters are setting naturally.
  • Lemolo Shore and Dogfish Bay, Poulsbo: A total of 79,200 seed were spread at the two sites in 2006. Results are uncertain.
  • Belfair State Park: Plans are to spread 500,000 native oysters next year.

 

Federal officials recognize the success of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.