Saving the Sound | Part 2 of 2

Saving the Sound | Part 2 of 2 | Appealing to Stomachs May Unlock Public's Hearts, Minds
Advocates hope the love for a tiny oyster will prompt more involvement in Puget Sound health.

By Curt Woodward, Associated Press, July 24, 2006

Jim Bryant | Associated Press
Betsy Peabody of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund looks for Olympia oysters on the shores of Dyes Inlet in Ostrich Bay near Jackson Park. With help from shellfish farmers and concerned citizens, the native oyster is staging a comeback, which may prove that Puget Sound's edible bounty is a powerful draw for public action to save the sound.


Ankle-deep in the briny muck of a low-tide beach, Brady Blake’s hunt for bits of hard-shelled treasure has ended.

Just as the state shellfish biologist hoped, this sandy stretch near an old Navy pier is home to Olympia oysters — the Pacific Northwest’s only native variety.

"This is an amazing find," Blake says, surveying fat clusters of greenish-gray Olympias clinging to rocks, concrete chunks and other shellfish.

These tiny, delicate oysters once blanketed beaches along the winding shores of Puget Sound. But like other sea creatures that have fed generations here, the Olympia was hit hard by harvesting, pollution and a growing human population.

Now, with help from shellfish farmers and concerned citizens alike, the native oyster is staging a comeback — proof, some say, that Puget Sound’s edible bounty is a powerful draw for public action.

After all, what better way to the people’s hearts than through their stomachs?

"We can say, ‘We need to restore this pristine wilderness.’ It just doesn’t motivate people," said David G. Gordon, co-author of "Heaven on the Half Shell," a book about Northwest oyster history.

"If you say, ‘If you like to eat oysters, then you’ve got to get your act together,’ then they’ll get motivated."

That’s the kind of message officials working on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s ambitious Puget Sound cleanup initiative are looking for — something that prompts broad swaths of the public to get involved.

Without a turnaround in public support, officials warn, the entire conservation plan may not get off the ground.

"If we aren’t able to better communicate with people about the severity of problems around Puget Sound and inspire them to take action, I’m not sure we can win," said Brad Ack, director of Gregoire’s Puget Sound Action Team.

Fish of all kinds are deeply rooted in the culture of Washington state, where the largest population centers crowd around Puget Sound’s 2,500 miles of shoreline.

So it was surprising earlier this month when officials leading the new cleanup effort reported that most people surveyed believed Puget Sound’s health was just fine.

Jim Bryant | Associated Press
Brady Blake, a shellfish biologist with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department, holds a cluster of Olympia oysters found on the beach in Bremerton. The Olympia oyster has been hit hard by harvesting, pollution and a growing population.

In reality, scientists warn, the sound carries sediment tainted by old-line industry alongside growing threats from urban runoff, sewage and wastewater. Salmon runs are in trouble, and the area is critical habitat for endangered killer whales.

For people like Betsy Peabody, that’s where shellfish come in.

Efforts such as native oyster restoration can draw on the history and culture of the sound to attract people who might not otherwise get involved, she said.

"Many people who are involved in this project, they don’t come at it necessarily from an environmental point of view. They come at it because they remember eating Olympia oysters back when they were young, or they remember hearing about their parents or their grandparents eating them," she said.

The state’s multimillion-dollar shellfish industry agrees, with leading growers such as Taylor Shellfish Farms reaching the public through oyster recovery and a push to establish small, private shellfish beds.

"I think that’s just a superb way to create a lot of interest in keeping the water clean and creating water-quality lobbyists in bigger numbers," said Jon Rowley, a noted seafood authority from Seattle who works with Taylor Shellfish.

"If somebody’s out there raising a little shellfish farm, they’re going to want to protect them and they’re going to want to be able to eat them," he said.

It’s also a life preserver for the industry, which has seen pollution close or hamper harvest on about one-fifth of the state’s commercial shellfish beds, some 30,000 acres, according to the Restoration Fund.

"It’s a great way to interact with the community as a business, but selfishly, it’s really about our longevity and trying to get people engaged about water quality," Taylor spokesman Bill Dewey said.

Puget Sound’s edible bounty also may help the cleanup effort get a national audience. The state already is a major national shellfish producer with a good reputation for quality products, Rowley said.

"I think that will be important to ultimately getting the federal support we need at the level we need," Dewey said. "We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of the national audience."

Back on the beach near Bremerton, Blake, Peabody and a crew of helpers are collecting Olympia oyster samples for testing at the state’s labs.

The oysters here aren’t recommended for eating — probably still too much pollution — and the population needs to be bolstered with habitat improvements.

But as he picks up a palm-sized, imported Pacific oyster encrusted with its smaller, native competitors, Blake is optimistic about the future.

"I think the Olympias are winning," he says with a grin.