Oysters and Willapa Bay

De Alessi Study on Private Conservation



Willapa is the cleanest bay in the country, and it is the oystermen who have kept it that way. 1

The Willapa Bay estuary in the southwest corner of Washington state arguably is the largest pristine estuary in the country. Amazingly, it also has a history of resource exploitation that dates back to the earliest settlers in the region. The long history of oystering, logging, cranberry farming, dairy farming, and fishing for salmon and crab have all had their effect on the local environment, and “Willapa today is a farmed ecosystem, its uplands, tidelands, and fisheries cultivated according to human design.”2 This exploitation has introduced its share of environmental concerns, but because of the efforts of local stakeholders, particularly the oystermen, it remains a verdant, productive resource and an example of the remarkable potency of private conservation.

The Willapa Bay watershed covers about 600,000 acres, including approximately 150,000 acres of privately owned tidelands. Between 10,000 and 15,000 acres are currently used for oyster cultivation, out of about 40,000 acres that could be productive. Much of the tidelands are not productive because of increases in a cordgrass called spartina and in burrowing shrimp populations that prevent oysters from growing.

Local interests, particularly the oystermen, want to solve these problems, but regulatory agencies have prevented them from taking action to prevent the growth of these noxious species. Although the bay remains healthy, this interference with the long standing history of private stewardship increasingly threatens Willapa Bay. Fortunately an ever broadening coalition in the region is realizing that local control offers the best opportunity for real progress. If the Willapa Alliance is successful, the bay will remain as healthy and productive as it ever was.

Oyster growers have had a profound effect on Willapa Bay and elsewhere in Washington because they own the tidelands oysters are cultivated on. Ownership ties oyster growers to a particular spot and gives them a vested interest in protecting the local environment; their livelihood depends on it. The extent of tidal ownership in Willapa Bay and elsewhere in Washington, particularly Puget Sound, is unique, and it explains why oyster growers have been so successful propagating oysters and protecting the health and well-being of Washington’s waters.



Oysters are filter feeders, siphoning water and digesting phytoplantkon (minuscule marine algae) that pass through them. It is this method of feeding that makes oysters especially sensitive to water quality. Oysters can strain 20 to 30 quarts of water an hour, and any pollutants or pathogens in the water quickly accumulate in oyster tissue. 3

Oysters typically harvested in the United States belong to the genera Crassostrea and Ostrea, which have similar forms of larval development. After fertilization free swimming larvae (called spat) search for hard substrate (called cultch) to settle on, often other oyster shells. They develop first as males, but thereafter can undergo sex changes (Crassostrea seasonally and Ostrea even more frequently). The spat settle permanently on hard surfaces (a process called spatfall), after which they can take from as little as one year to over five years to reach marketable size, depending on the species and the local environment.

Temperature and salinity are especially important to an oyster for growth and survival, as is a hard substrate from which to enjoy its position. The best areas for spatfall are often not the best grow-out areas, which creates a golden opportunity for oyster farmers to increase oyster growth rates by moving oysters between seed beds and grow-out beds.


Oysters and Willapa Bay

The interaction between people and oysters in Willapa Bay dates back to the earliest settlers. The first city incorporated in the region was Oysterville in 1852, a small town on the Long Beach peninsula and the center of the burgeoning oyster industry. Schooners laden with oysters sailed from Willapa (then called Shoalwater) Bay to San Francisco and its gold rush markets. The trip was lucrative enough that in the 1850s and 60s a number of schooners were involved exclusively in the “Shoalwater Bay trade,” 4 and for a time Oysterville was the wealthiest town in Washington, earning it the nickname “the Baltimore of the West.”

This trade continued until around 1870, when both the numbers of oysters in Willapa began to diminish and the first transcontinental railroad reached San Francisco, bringing Eastern oysters withit. The original Baltimore soon replaced its Washington counterpart and by the turn of the century 85 percent of the oysters sold in California were Easterns. 5

Those first oysters taken from Willapa Bay were the native Washington oyster, Ostrea lurida, also known as the Olympia oyster. The Olympia is a slow growing mollusk, 6 and as it was harvested with impunity for the schooner trade, its population declined both in Willapa and then later in Puget Sound. 7 The decline of the Olympias led people to cultivate oysters where they did not occur naturally, and the first oyster farms appeared in Willapa Bay in the late 1800s. The areas they staked out formed the basis of the private tidelands that exist today, and were the start of the long history of private stewardship in Willapa Bay.

As the Olympias were declining, the logging industry was growing, and the effluent from pulp mills put additional stress on the oysters. That combined with a run of cold summers just after the turn of the century were too much for the native Olympias, and despite the efforts of local oystermen, their numbers continued to decline. 8

The Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas, a Japanese import) was first brought to Washington by Japanese entrepreneurs at the turn of the century. Willapa oystermen did not begin importing Pacific seed until 1928, shortly after a Washington law forbade any foreign ownership of land title, forcing the Japanese to give up their interests in oyster tidelands. 9 Pacific oysters quickly adapted to the Willapa environment because of their high tolerance for exposure (tides in Willapa can be extreme) and cooler waters. As oyster populations declined elsewhere (most notably in the Chesapeake), Pacifics in Willapa thrived, and today one out of every six oysters produced in the United States is a Pacific oyster from Willapa Bay. 10


Eliminating the Tragedy of the Commons

The original oyster populations in Willapa Bay declined because of “the tragedy of the commons.” 11 Simply put, the operators of the schooners involved in the Shoalwater Bay oystr trade had no reason not to fill up their holds with impunity because if they did not, someone else would.

When the Olympia oyster populations declined, Willapa oystermen responded by cultivating areas that were not natural oyster beds. They marked off the boundaries of these areas with stakes, beginning the process of creating private property rights to intertidal and subtidal lands in Willapa Bay. Thus Willapa oystermen averted the tragedy of the commons and set the precedent for tidal ownership in Washington 40 years before statehood.

When Washington became a state in 1889, de facto ownership of these areas was well established. Recognizing the importance of the oyster industry, in 1891 the state legislature passed the Callow Act, which allowed oyster growers to purchase the lands they were farming. Subsequently, in 1895, the Bush Act was passed, allowing anyone to purchase lands not already being used for oyster production, as long as they did just that — farm oysters or other shellfish, and nothing else.

The legislature eventually ended the sale of tidelands, but not before approximately 60 percent of available tidelands had been purchased. 12 Legal title gave oyster growers the impetus for private stewardship and resource enhancement, and emboldened them to fight for clean water for their oysters.


Experimentation and Innovation

The innovation and experimentation undertaken by the oyster industry in Washington has brought them unprecedented success. It is no coincidence that nowhere else is tideland ownership so extensive, and nowhere else does the industry work so hard to solve its own problems.

In an effort to save the declining Olympias, oyster growers invested huge sums to maintain and enhance their tidelands. They were committed to a particular spot, so that when adversity arose, there was nowhere else for them to go. 13 It was not uncommon in 1910 for an oyster grower in Puget Sound to invest $5,000 in an acre of tideland worth $1,000. 14 Much of this expense consisted of building systems of dikes to keep tidelands flooded, as Olympia oysters have to be underwater continuously. Unfortunately the Olympias continued to decline, due in part to increases in water pollution; but because of their investments, the oyster growers persevered.

Following a short experiment with Eastern oysters, the Pacific oyster was introduced into Willapa Bay in 1928. These oysters did very well in Willapa waters, but initially they did not spawn naturally and had to be imported from Japan each year. In 1936 Pacific oysters suddenly began spawning naturally in Willapa Bay. Oyster beds were still supplemented with imported seed, but the large, fast growing Pacific oysters quickly became an integral part of the Willapa Bay watershed. 15

Where the ground was too muddy or hard for oysters to survive, oystermen used off-bottom techniques to grow out oysters on artificial surfaces. These culture methods include attaching oysters to wooden stakes driven into the ground, on wires or lines suspended off the bottom, on floats or suspended nets, or by seeding large bags of oyster cultch and suspending them on racks. These methods tremendously increased oyster production and demonstrated the ingenuity of the Washington oystermen.

Oyster growers in Willapa and elsewhere also invested in their own hatcheries, and were so successful that they eventually exported seed back to Japan. These private hatcheries continue to support Pacific oyster production and are also involved in extensive research. 16 Hatchery projects include broodstock manipulations to produce hardier, tastier oysters, not just Pacifics, but native Olympias, Kumamotos (Crassostrea sikemea, another Japanese import), European Flat oysters (Ostrea edulis), and even the beleaguered Eastern oyster.

Another hatchery project is the triploid oyster, an oyster with an extra chromosome that prevents it from spawning in the summer months (spawning oyster lose much of their plumpness and taste). Previously oysters were rarely harvested over the summer, but now summer harvests of plump oysters are commonplace.


Fighting for Water Quality

Because they are filter feeders, oysters are hyper-sensitive to pollution. Even small amounts of pollution can result in either mass die-offs or contaminated oysters that are unsafe to eat. Oysters are are commonly referred to as “canaries in the mineshaft” — the earliest indicators of declines in water quality. This has been a burden on the oyster industry, but a blessing to the health of Washington’s waters, as the oyster growers have always fought diligently for clean water.

In 1930 oyster growers from Willapa and elsewhere formed the Pacific Coast Oyster Grower’s Association (PCOGA) to purchase seed from Japan and to promote oyster sales. But as the pollution from pulp mills increased, the PCOGA became one of the staunchest defenders of water quality in Washington state.

Throughout the history of the Pacific oyster those engaged in the industry have… been leaders in the development of laws and regulations governing sanitary requirements relating to oyster beds. 17

During World War II the timber industry in Washington was pervasive, and sulfite liquor effluent from pulp mills around the state destroyed many oyster beds. The oystermen responded by inciting legislators to create the Washington Pollution Control Commission in 1945. The new laws set water quality standards, made it unlawful to violate them, and created a control board to enforce them. In 1955, the Washington legislature strengthened these standards (only for industry, not municipalities), and as the oyster growers brought more cases to the Commission, pulp mills changed their behavior, and sulfite effluent declined. 18

In the 1940s and 50s pulp mills dumped sulfites directly into Willapa Bay through a small number of outfalls (this kind of pollution is known as point source pollution). The logging industry tried to prove that oysters thrived in pulp mill effluent, 19 but the PCOGA successfully refuted these claims, and the newly created Washington Pollution Control Board compelled pulp mills to reduce their emissions. As pollution from the mills declined, oyster populations quickly recovered.

Ownership gave oystermen the impetus to fight pollution. They depended on clean water and were committed to defending a particular piece of property. Tim Smith, the current executive director of the PCOGA, believes that Washington has avoided many of the pollution problems prevalent in other states “because of the presence of private tidelands.” 20 In Willapa Bay, the waters are cleaner today than a generation ago. 21

The approach that oyster growers took to protecting water quality was a statutory one. They participated in and relied on the passage and enforcement of regulations to protect water quality. It is also possible to address pollution problems privately, but given the situation, their choice made sense. Oyster growers might have been able to contract with pulp mills to solve their pollution problem or sued them under the common law for damaging their property, but the regulatory approach involved much less effort and expense, and addressed point source pollution successfully. The oyster industry already depended on their statutory right to farm oysters (the aforementioned Bush and Callow Acts), so it easily followed to protect their oysters in the same way.

In England, the owners of salmon in rivers have used the common law to prevent pollution. Under the common law, damage to someone’s property must be compensated and the damaging activity must cease. The common law has been evolving for centuries, and can be a powerful tool to protect environmental health. 23 The Anglers Cooperative Association (formed from owners of rights to salmon in rivers in England and Wales) won a landmark suit against a polluter in the 1950s, and since then has filed over a thousand cases against polluters, settling almost all of them out of court.

Regulations may have been an effective way to fight point source pollution, but today most pollution problems come from nonpoint source pollution (pollution from a large number of small sources, such as leaking septic tanks or agricultural runoff). 24 Regulations exist that address nonpoint source pollution, but convincing state officials to actually enforce them is a very difficult proposition, and oyster growers have yet to find an effective solution to nonpoint source pollution.

In most cases oyster growers damaged by nonpoint source pollution know exactly where it is coming from, but there is little that they can do. 25 Nonpoint pollution can be proved by running dye tests, but only a state agency can force people to perform them. Suing the county or the state is an option, and the PCOGA has done so, but they simply do not have the resources to take on the state of Washington.

The PCOGA has had some success working with local communities to reduce nonpoint source pollution, but as the coastal population of Washington continues to grow, nonpoint sources of pollution will increase and statutory protections will continue to be ineffectual. The common law, which allows for direct relief from damaging pollution, may be an attractive alternative to the disappointing regulatory regimes that exist today.


The Willapa Alliance

In 1992, declines in the health of the bay and frustration with regulatory agencies combined to lead people from diverse backgrounds to form the Willapa Alliance, to “build constituencies for local solutions to economic and environmental issues.” 26 The Alliance was formed with the belief that “those individuals who live and work in a community are the ones who care most about the environment which surrounds it — not the government, not the environmental groups whose offices are located in cities.” 27

One impetus for the creation of the Alliance was the threat that oyster growers faced from a non-native cordgrass called spartina and a burrowing shrimp, both of which destroy oyster habitat. Remedies exist to control these species, but state regulators have tied the hands of oyster growers, leading one grower to comment that the greatest threat to the bay is not pollution or invasive species, but it’s so-called custodian — the state of Washington. 28

The Willapa Alliance has had some success at encouraging discussion and finding compromise because people with local interests want to find solutions as quickly as possible. They are demonstrating that “rural folks can best manage their natural resources and protect the environment given local empowerment and the proper tools.” 29 Their methods have not encouraged completely private environmental protection, but they have recognized the ineffectualness of the regulatory approach and taken a strong first step toward promoting effective, local, private stewardship.

Oyster growers have been at the heart of this group since its inception. Oyster growers have provided a model for private conservation, not out of some vague notion of altruism, but because of their ownership of tidelands and vested interest in protecting the health of the Willapa Bay. Their industry is an ideal model of a business that both utilizes and protects the Willapa environment. Oysters provide habitat for crabs, eelgrass, algae, and other marine invertebrates. They filter water and improve habitat for young fish. “Oystering suggests an ideal … it profits while enhancing the diversity and productivity of the [environment] as a whole.” 30



1. Dick Wilson, Bay Center Mariculture (a Willapa Bay oyster company), personal communication, October 1995.

2. Edward C. Wolf, 1993. A Tidewater Place. Long Beach, Washington: The Willapa Alliance.

3. David M. Dressel and Teh-Wei Hu, 1983. The U.S. Oyster Industry. National Marine Fisheries Service.

4. Elinore M. Barret, 1963. The California Oyster Industry. California Dept. of Fish and Game, Fish Bulletin #123.

5. Elinore Barret, 1963.

6. Olympia oysters take at least three years to grow to market size, which is still small (about the size of a fifty-cent coin). Pacific oysters, on the other hand, tend to grow to market size in one year.

7. The Washington Dept. of Fisheries did begin to keep records of oyster harvests until 1897, so exact numbers before this date are unknown.

8. E.N. Steele, 1964. The Immigrant Oyster. Olympia, Washington: Warren’s Quick Print.

9. E.N. Steele, 1964.

10. Edward Wolf, 1993.

11. Garret Hardin, 1968 “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science. 162: 1243-1248.

12. Dorothy L. Leonard and Eric A. Slaughter, 1990. The Quality of Shellfish Growing Waters on the West Coast of the United States. Rockville, Maryland: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

13. Bill Dewey, Taylor United Shellfish, personal communication, October 1995.

14. William Taylor, Taylor United Shellfish, personal communication, October 1995.

15. Edward Wolf, 1993.

16. The largest hatcheries today are operated respectively by Weigardt Bros. and Bay Center Mariculture in Willapa, and Taylor United and the Coast Oyster Company on the Hood Canal (Puget Sound).

17. E.N. Steele, 1964.

18. For a discussion of the pollution fighting activities of the oystermen see Appendix A in E.N. Steele, 1964, “The Pacific Oyster and Pollution.”

19. see E.N. Steele, 1964.

20. Tim Smith, Pacific Coast Oyster Growers’ Association, personal communication, October, 1995.

21. Edward Wolf, 1993.

22. Roger Bate, 1994. “Water Pollution Prevention: A Nuisance Approach.” Economic Affairs. April.

23. for an in depth discussion of common law solutions to pollution and the political economy of regulatory approaches, see Bruce Yandle, 1992. “Escaping Environmental Feudalism.” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 15: 601-23, Roger E. Meiners, 1995. “Elements of Property Rights: The Common Law Alternative.” in Bruce Yandle, ed. Land Rights. Rowman and Littlefield. Lanham, Maryland, or Elizabeth Brubaker, 1995. Property Rights in the Defence of Nature. Toronto: Earthscan Publications.

24. Bill Dewey, 1995.

25. Tim Smith, 1995.

26. Willapa Alliance brochure. no date

27. National Public Radio, 1993. All Things Considered. April 3.

28. Dick Wilson, 1995. see Spartina: Threat to Washington’s Salt Water Habitat. (put out by the Washington State Department of Agriculture in November 1992) for a list of the agencies involved: the Washington State Departments of Agriculture, Ecology, Fisheries, Natural Resources and Wildlife, the Noxious Weed Control Boards in the three counties that contain the Willapa watershed, the Army Corps of Engineers, and finally the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.

29. Dan’l Markham, the Willapa Alliance, personal communication, December, 1994.

30. Edward Wolf, 1995.