Olympia Oyster Restoration

Current efforts to rebuild native oyster populations have generated a groundswell of activity. This 25-minute film captures some of the characters and activities involved in rebuilding a storied population that has beckoned humans to the shore for thousands of years. Film by Shelly Solomon of Leaping Frog Films.

Results of Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s 10-year, 100-acre goal to restore Olympia oyster habitat
March 2015

Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) works collaboratively with tribes, industry, government, researchers, and community groups to rebuild Olympia oyster populations and restore native oyster habitat at 19 priority locations in Puget Sound. These locations are identified in Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s 2012 updated Olympia oyster Stock Rebuilding Plan. Restoring native shellfish populations is also one of the express goals of the Washington Shellfish Initiative.

Historically, native oyster beds provided a significant intertidal habitat feature – spanning 10,000 – 20,000 acres in Puget Sound circa 1850, according to Brady Blake at Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Extrapolating from an estimated 117 miles of total intertidal space available, Brady further estimates that historically Olympia oysters covered 13.4-26.7% of the intertidal area within Puget Sound, though large natural beds would have been limited to 30-36 embayments.

While sparse native oyster populations still persist throughout much of their historic range, structured, dense Olympia oyster beds have dwindled to 5% of historic abundance (WDFW, 2013). To consider this within a global context, 85% of oyster reefs have been lost worldwide, according to The Nature Conservancy, making shellfish reefs “the most imperiled marine habitat on earth.”

Structure is important in the marine system. In tropical waters, coral reefs provide habitat structure that supports multiple and diverse species. In temperate waters, oyster beds and reefs provide similar “biogenic” habitat structure that supports species diversity and ecosystem health. For this reason, PSRF has embraced a 10-year goal to restore 100 acres of living native oyster habitat by 2020.

The strategies we use to rebuild breeding populations and restore habitat structure have evolved over time and vary by inlet. In areas with natural larval production where structure-limited habitat prevents oyster bed development, we spread Pacific oyster shell to provide a settlement structure that enables larvae to naturally re-colonize historic ground. In areas where remnant populations are depressed or absent, we produce and spread seed in order to enhance the breeding population and increase larval retention. This is a necessary first step to restoring habitat associated with dense aggregations. In some areas, we combine the two strategies described above in order to accelerate oyster recruitment to the restored area. To ensure that seed is genetically diverse, we use conservation protocols at PSRF’s shellfish restoration hatchery, which is located at NOAA’s Manchester Research Station. Officially opened in 2014, the “Kenneth K. Chew Center for Research” (CCSR) restores native shellfish species and other marine resources through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between PSRF and NOAA.

The restoration methods that we’ve developed, tested, and refined over the years are yielding good results. As of 2014, 40 acres of Olympia oyster populations and habitat have been restored in priority locations, and collaborative efforts at 2 of the 19 priority areas have successfully met conservation objectives outlined in the State’s plan. According to Brady Blake with WDFW, focused efforts to restore 20 acres of native oyster habitat in Liberty Bay provide the model for continued native oyster restoration in Washington State. Extensive monitoring has shown that remnant native oysters in the bay have rapidly re-colonized the restored shell-base exhibiting significant reproductive success, survival, increased abundance with multiple year classes, and colonization of new habitat.

Restoration efforts are actively underway in many of Puget Sound’s remaining 19 priority areas owing in large part to the willing participation of many tideland owners, the continued interest of the press, and generous support from a throng of partners too numerous to list. Particular thanks are owed Washington Departments of Fish & Wildlife, Ecology, and Natural Resources, Tribes, commercial growers, The Nature Conservancy, NOAA, Northwest Straits Commission, USDA, and the U.S. Navy.


This video shows two four liter aquariums side by side. There are 60 manila clams are in one on right, none in one on left. 300,000 cells of algae per milliliter have been added to both aquariums. The timelapse captures 28 minutes in 15 seconds. This video demonstrates the incredible ability of bivalve shellfish to filter and improve the water clarity in the bays in which they grow.


Excerpt from The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's documentary "Common Ground"
Oysters provide much-needed filtration of Chesapeake Bay waters, habitat for other aquatic life, and a modest commercial harvest. CBF estimates the oyster population to be as low as 4 percent of historic levels. Restoring the Chesapeake's native oyster population is key to bringing back the Bay's health.