Can 'farming' restore bay oyster business? Meet the Frank Perdue of aquaculture

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OYSTERVILLE, Wash. -- Gathering dust in the rafters of a seafood cannery, the oyster tongs are identical to those still used by watermen a continent away on the Chesapeake Bay.

Here on Willapa Bay, which produces a sixth of the nation's oysters from acreage the size of East Baltimore, such primitive implements belong in a museum.

And in Seattle, University of Washington scientist Kenneth K. Chew, a global authority on shellfish, says the Chesapeake oyster's place in overall production now amounts to "spit in the ocean."

Virtually the rest of the world has moved on to growing various strains of a disease-resistant Japanese oyster, Dr. Chew says.

He didn't mean to be unkind, but it is hard for a Marylander not to feel like a Third World delegate when comparing notes with the Pacific Northwest, which leads the world in modern oyster-farming techniques.

Nor is one left with any illusions about the task facing Maryland, which last week announced a plan to restore the disease-wracked Chesapeake oyster and preserve the bay's independent watermen -- while at the same time trying to establish modern aquaculture.

"I've got a lot of respect for those Chesapeake tongers, but I travel to every place in the world that grows oysters commercially, and everywhere it seems like the wild harvest had to go before aquaculture really got started," says Lee J. Wiegardt, one of Washington state's most progressive oyster farmers.

Mr. Wiegardt's Jolly Roger Seafoods in Nahcotta, a few miles down the bay from Oysterville, owns 2,200 acres of Willapa Bay bottom. That would be a legal impossibility in Maryland, where the concept of public fisheries precludes even private leases on the best oyster beds.

From his oyster farm, and mostly from its best 250 acres for oyster growth, Mr. Wiegardt probably will outproduce the entire Maryland and Virginia Chesapeake this year.

Disease and the legacy of over-harvesting and mismanagement promise a Chesapeake harvest likely to be less than the 100,000 or so bushels a year shipped by Jolly Roger. The millions of bushels that used to be taken almost as a birthright from the Chesapeake are only a memory now.

Mr. Wiegardt's intensively managed farm and use of high-tech oyster hatcheries puts him closer to Frank Perdue than to a Chesapeake waterman. But he is a far cry from the corporate, Exxon-scale presence watermen in Maryland fear would inevitably control a privatized oyster industry.

His grandfather, Heinrick Johann Wiegardt, began shipping oysters from Willapa Bay to San Francisco in 1874. His son, Fritz, 41, is the fourth generation of Wiegardts to farm oysters, and Fritz's son "wants to get into the business so bad we can hardly keep him in college," Lee Wiegardt says.

His fellow grower and friend down the street, Harry Bendicksen, goes back nearly as far. The two, along with a few other farms, produce the bulk of the bay's half a million or so bushels of oysters each year.

But there are probably a hundred others growing oysters here, many owning small acreages and producing a few thousand bushels a year. Mr. Wiegardt, who says he has lost money in nine of the last 21 years, thinks oystering has too many ups and downs, and too much local involvement, to appeal to big corporations.

The heart of Jolly Roger, a nondescript jumble of buildings on the Willapa waterfront, parking lot crunchy with shell, has much the look and ambience of Chesapeake oyster houses at Tilghman Island and Crisfield.

Inside, a dozen or so shuckers -- called "openers" here -- divest the bivalves of their plump meats. Ironically, every oyster Mr. Wiegardt can spare right now is headed for Japan. This is as odd as if Maryland's Eastern Shore were forced to import chickens.

Japan and South Korea together usually harvest several times the entire oyster production of the United States. But this year's crop along 1,500 miles of coastline in the two Asian countries was an unprecedented wipeout, caused by a mysterious failure of free-floating larval oysters to "set," or attach to a hard surface and begin growing.

This natural process is precisely where U.S. oystermen on the West Coast have revolutionized the industry, pioneering artificial hatchery and setting techniques that insulate their companies from dependence on the vagaries of nature.

The revolution is apparent in a warm, brightly lighted building filled with bubbling tanks, where a Wiegardt biologist is growing algae. When she deems the brew ready for consumption, she introduces the microscopic larvae of male and female oysters that have just been induced to spawn in a nearby bucket.

For two to three weeks, the babies are monitored, measured, sorted and fed -- tended like a prize crop until the day they exhibit an "eye," a pinpoint black dot.

This means they are close to extending their tiny foot, for feeling out an oyster shell or other suitable surface on which to glue themselves for the rest of their lives.

Filtered from the water into a mass that looks like damp, gray-green sand, they can be held for more than a week, even shipped overseas -- 5 million incipient oysters in a pouch no larger than a tennis ball. Cost: about $500.

From there it is "add water and stir." The larvae are swirled into big tanks -- where cylindrical bags of shell fragments are stacked like cordwood -- and allowed to complete their set. The shell is then distributed on the oyster beds.

Mr. Wiegardt figures it takes roughly a billion of these "eyed larvae" to translate into 100,000 bushels of marketable oysters. He is a self-professed "bottom-liner" when it comes to business but acknowledges that he much prefers, when conditions are right, "to catch seed the natural way, out in the bay.

"Hatcheries take all the romance out of it . . . like getting your wife pregnant with artificial insemination, and we get better growth from the natural stuff," he says. "But nature can give you too little some years and other years too much."

To an extent, it was the extraordinary fecundity and resilience of the Chesapeake's oyster beds that allowed places such as Willapa Bay to supersede it in aquaculture. The bay's natural system simply hung on for a century after most of the world's oyster areas had been forced to adopt farming.

The native oysters of Willapa, called Olympias and related most closely to the French belon, were virtually mined to exhaustion to supply the San Francisco market more than a century ago.

For a few decades, the industry was revived by transplanting and farming the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, found from New England and the Chesapeake to the Gulf of Mexico. By however, a mysterious decline had decimated the imports.

In a tiny corner of Willapa Bay, one farmer, Dick Wilson still maintains a bed of virginica, one of the few disease-free stocks of them left in the world. "I just like to have a few around," he says.

In 1928, farmers around Willapa began to grow -- sometimes to sizes the equal of a man's shoe -- what would emerge as one of the molluscan world's most cosmopolitan members.

Native to Japan, Crassostrea gigas has now been introduced from Seattle to Australia, from China to France, often after diseases drove native shellfish to low levels. More than 80 percent of world oyster production now depends on gigas.

"The world's oyster," the University of Washington's Dr. Chew calls it. Though fast-growing and resistant to all serious diseases of shellfish, gigas may not be suited for warm water and low salinity, as found in the Chesapeake. But where it has adapted, it has usually crowded out any native oysters.

"It is an oyster that almost demands intensive farming," Mr. Wiegardt says. "It just runs wild . . . forms reefs with uneven sizes and shapes if you don't manage it."

It will even set on brass propellers, creosote pilings and toxic boat-bottom paint.

If gigas is the world's oyster, Mr. Wiegardt is the world's oysterman. Decades ago, he began traveling up Japan's Black River to buy the seed -- baby oysters -- on which Willapa growers then depended.

He still travels two or three months a year to wherever oysters are grown, even to Crisfield, where they are barely still grown. The 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square caught him inspecting Chinese oyster beds. Inchon and Normandy to him recall not wars, but prime oyster regions.

Mr. Wiegardt is always checking out the competition: shopping seafood stores with Japanese housewives; holing up in a French hotel with a little hot plate, "cooking oysters from local markets every way I know how. . . . I gotta say they grow a good oyster."

His travel photos run to shots of shellfish on display. ("Just look at these Hokkaidos -- bottom-raised," he says, like a vintner appreciating Bordeaux grapes.)

Of the world's 72 known varieties of oysters, Mr. Wiegardt probably has inspected more than half. "Everywhere I go, I turn over rocks, and usually there's some kind of oyster growing there," he says. "Even the smallest, one-man oyster operation, odds are he's doing something better than you are, and you can learn from him."

And what can this most cosmopolitan of shellfish farmers tell the struggling Chesapeake? It is, he acknowledges, a different ecosystem than his native Willapa, where an 18-foot tidal range exposes the oyster bottoms almost daily, so harvesters can walk out and pick them up. Most of the Chesapeake's oysters are forever underwater.

Some techniques used in Willapa, where the bottom is private and the oyster industry is one of the region's main employers, might not be acceptable in Maryland. The pesticide Sevin is sprayed on the tidal flats to combat a shrimp that destroys oyster beds. Willapa's huge tides seem to flush the chemical out before it gets in oysters.

Growers also are moving to use herbicides such as Rodeo and Roundup to combat the spread of an "exotic" invader -- none other than spartina alterniflora, which makes up some of the Chesapeake's most ecologically important marshes. Imported decades ago with shipments of Eastern oysters, the marsh grass has begun spreading recently, with potential to cover the bay's tidal oyster grounds.

Mr. Wiegardt thinks there is potential in the Chesapeake for growing oysters off the bottom, on ropes suspended from rafts. Japan and South Korea produce about 20 million bushels a year that way, using areas far smaller than the bay.

He and aquaculture experts in Maryland also agree that West Coast hatchery and artificial setting techniques would be a boon to any oyster restoration in the Chesapeake. He says such a facility could be built for less than half a million dollars.

A transition on the Chesapeake to oyster farms would result in a loss of tradition and the beauty of skipjacks working under sail, but judging from Willapa Bay, the change would have positive aspects.

And Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, wants to see for himself. He plans to visit the Wiegardts soon.

"Might as well see how they do it out there," Mr. Simns said in Annapolis last week.

HORTON TASTE TEST

Staff writer (and On The Bay columnist) Tom Horton, a connoisseur of the Chesapeake oyster, tried the Japanese kind grown in Willapa Bay in Washington state. His findings:

* Willapa's leading shellfish restaurants do them grandly: sauteed with Thai-style wild mushrooms, with a sake and ginger cream sauce; also poached pepper lime oysters; and oysters with brie, champagne and saffron.

* Whether poached, sauteed, fried or in a creamy, buttery stew, these oysters need only the slightest touch of heat to reveal a wonderful, sweet flavor. I've never tasted better around the Chesapeake.

* Raw on the half shell, however, is another story. The taste is bland, even though the oysters grow in water saltier than most of the Chesapeake.

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