THE LIFE IN AN OYSTER
WORDS: NATE BERNITZ
IMAGE: JESSY KORTANGIAN
I remember the unexpectedness most. After spending almost every summer of my childhood exploring the rocky coastline of Maine and Nova Scotia, I thought I understood my relationship to the ocean. It was a place of immense beauty, mysterious creatures of all shapes and sizes, undiscovered frontiers, and in desperate need of protection.
But years later, as I discovered the muddy shores of the Puget Sound in between classes, I stumbled on something. It was an oyster, but not like any I had ever seen. It was the length of my forearm, covered in a quilt of Christmas colored seaweeds and crawling life, it seemed strangely alone. This oyster didn’t seem to need protection from the likes of me or anyone else. It seemed like it had survived countless tribulations and had been there longer than anything. I needed to know its story.
It turned out that throughout the small, narrow inlet where this old oyster lived were oyster farms. These are marine farms, otherwise known as aquaculture. These oysters were cultivated from their free-swimming larval stage to about a year old, when they were harvested and brought to oyster bars, restaurants, and groceries throughout the world. At first, I was skeptical.
But when I spent time on some of these farms, I discovered beaches full of abundance. More like ranches than farms, the growing equipment and oysters seemed to attract unimaginable life and biodiversity. Eel like gunnels and hermit crabs hunkered down during the twice-daily low tides that exposed the mudflats. Enormous moon snails and sunflower stars lurked around sweet spots especially dense with shellfish, ready to feed with reckless abandon when the frigid estuary dutifully flooded the beach again.
As much life as was visible at low tide, lying dormant to avoid detection from curious seagulls flying overhead, what was most incredible was what these farms looked like underwater. A friend of mine found out by deploying underwater cameras, and we watched in amazement as flounder, seals, sea ducks, and even octopus came in droves to enjoy the buffet provided by the farm. It was a sight to see.
These commercial farms are home to hundreds of thousands of oysters and clams, each filtering dozens of nutrient rich gallons of water every day.
Whatever was in that water was in the oysters and clams too, and the farmers understood that better than anyone. Rain brought what’s known as nonpoint source pollution from throughout the watershed into the rivers that fed the Sound. From abandoned pet waste at local parks to over applied fertilizers and pesticides in people’s yards, the rain skimmed it all into streams, storm drains, and rivers that eventually made their way to these oyster farms.
It wasn’t environmentalists on the front lines of this challenge, lobbying for legislation and passing out pet waste bags. No, instead it was the oyster farmers - after all, their livelihoods were at stake.
Oysters could only be harvested from clean water. When water quality declined, the farms were closed and workers were sent home without pay. But when the water coming down the rivers was clean and the storm drains were dry, the water quality bounced back in just days. After all, the tides flushed water from the inlets to the Sound and into the Pacific twice a day. The oysters were usually safe to eat just days after that.
On the same beach I found that lone oyster, I worked with some college classmates to get necessary approvals and support to start an oyster farm. We realized there was no better way to galvanize support for keeping our water clean and beach protected than to involve the student body and the community. When we broke ground, curious students wandered down to the beach - many for the first time. As students from across the country and the world pulled on hip waders and rubber gloves and trudged through the campus’ temperate rainforest and down to the beach, they discovered what I discovered: oysters are life.
After months and months of farming those tidelands, both during warm summer days and frigid winter nights, we completed the farm to table cycle that has captured the hearts and souls of people all over the world for generations. We carefully and joyfully gathered as many oysters as we wanted, and we slurped the best oysters any of us had ever tasted. They were ours, and they were perfect.
To this day, I don’t know where that lone oyster came from, but I know where it took me. Years later, the school’s oyster farm is still there too. I don’t know the students tending to it now, but I do know how important they are. People protect what they care about, and care about what brings them joy and enlivens their senses. Even now, the first oyster I tasted from our garden keeps my fire lit.
As it turns out, those oysters don’t need our protection. But the water they live in does. So when you slurp your next oyster, thank the coalition of water protectors and oyster farmers who made it possible. And by all means - farm on.
The school referenced in this article is The Evergreen State College, and the oyster farm is called The Evergreen Shellfish Garden.