Oyster restoration effort helps to clean up Sound

By Leslie Brown
June 27 2007

A handful of Island volunteers, from 3-year-old old Zander Knodt to 77-year-old Harry Kirschner, gave a hand Saturday to a small population of the region’s once-abundant Olympia oyster.

And in so doing, organizers of a Puget Sound-wide effort to restore these native filter feeders said, they also gave a boost to Vashon’s ailing marine environment.

Betsy Peabody, director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, smiled at the 20 volunteers on the shores of Raab’s Lagoon as they paused from their arduous work of laying oyster shell on the beach. Not only were they making a difference for these small native oysters, she told them; they were also helping to restore a complex marine ecosystem, working to reintroduce an animal that does something mighty important in Quartermaster Harbor: clean the water.

Oysters are filter feeders, taking in huge amounts of nutrient-laden waters and in the process extracting not only the phytoplankton they live on but also pollutants and pathogens. In other words, they clean things up a bit, Peabody said.

“And Lord knows we need a little help from our filter feeder friends,” she told the group. “This little oyster doesn’t look like much. But boy, it can pack a wallop.”

Olympia oysters, Washington’s only native oyster, were once found by the millions in the coves, inlets and other protected tidelands of the Puget Sound. Salty and delicate, they were heavily harvested during the 1850s and 1860s, launching the start of the Northwest’s booming shellfish industry.

But those heavy harvests as well as pollution from the lumber mills that also dotted the region’s coves and inlets took a toll on these small, slow-growing oysters.With their numbers faltering, oystermen began importing the larger and faster-growing Pacific oysters, further displacing the struggling native.

Today, Olympia oysters are hanging on by a thread, marine ecologists say. And as a result, several groups, from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to The Nature Conservancy, are working to restore them throughout the region. Peabody’s group, whose sole mission is the restoration of the Olympia oyster, is currently working in conjunction with the Puget Soundkeepers Alliance and a couple of other groups at five sites in Puget Sound, hoping to rebuild the marine environment and further connect people to the richness of the region’s natural fauna along the way, Peabody said.

“Clearly, this is about more than an oyster. It’s about an ecosystem. It’s about people’s connection to the ecosystem. Shellfish play a critical role in maintaining the health of estuaries around the world. … Their impact is much greater than their size would lead one to believe,” she said.

The Puget Sound Restoration Fund, with support from King County, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Brown’s Carwash and the Suquamish and Puyallup Indian tribes, has been working to restore Olympia oyster in Quartermaster Harbor for two years.

Earlier this year, in the course of conducting some habitat surveys, a crew ventured into Raab’s Lagoon, a small, manmade inlet just south of Portage, and found one Olympia oyster attached to a rock. They did further surveys, Peabody said, and realized there was a small remnant population of native oysters, a discovery, she said, that made sense. Raab’s Lagoon is sheltered, with few predators, relatively warm water and limited tidal action.

“It was a wonderful discovery,” Peabody said.

But the crew also knew these oysters were in trouble without a little human intervention, as they lacked one very important ingredient to oyster survival: what Peabody calls a substrate or, in other words, a place for the oyster larvae to set and grow.

So on Saturday, 20 volunteers gathered at Annie Roberts’ home on the shores of Raab’s Lagoon and created a substrate.

They lugged 150 skin-biting bags of Pacific oyster shell down a steep trail to the shore, piling them up between wood stakes that marked the plots Peabody and others will return to over time to see if the effort is working. Once the bags were all in place, volunteers slit them open, stepped a few feet into the water and shook the shells out, performing what looked like an odd, ritualistic water dance.

Three-year-old Zander threw the occasional dropped shell into the water. One volunteer lost a sandal in the muck. A heron fished not far away, and kingfishers flew overhead, calling raucously as they passed by.

“I like this type of thing,” Kirschner said, when asked what brought him out to lug bags of oyster shell. “I like stuff that was here, and I want to help to bring it back.”

Adrienne Edmonson, Zander’s mother, said she, too, found the idea of this little volunteer effort interesting.

“There’s something to exposing kids to things like this when they’re young,” she added, “and experiencing things first-hand.”

Peabody said a crew will return to Raab’s Lagoon this August to see if any oyster larvae settled on the shell. Once the seed is set, it’s called spat, she said.

What would success look like?

“Any spat survival would be good,” she said.