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Sunday, February 18, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Places

Mad About Oysters -- As Oyster Bars Ring Up Profits On The Half Shell, Local Growers Worry About Future Harvests In Rapidly Urbanizing Puget Sound

CONSIDER THE oyster board.

At the Brooklyn, a downtown Seattle steak-and-seafood joint, it's more baffling than the wine list: Honeymoon Bays. Sunset Beaches. Shoalwaters. Port Blakelys. Hama Hamas. Most days, the restaurant offers 10 different Northwest oysters. Customers slurp down 400 dozen a week.

If, as Northwest phenomena go, boutique bivalves aren't quite in the same league with Starbucks franchises and microbreweries, Puget Sound is headquarters for what one writer tagged the American Oyster Renaissance.

Eating fresh oysters - a sensation of salt, cleanliness and shocking chill sliding down your throat - is about tasting the sea. It's also an act of history reaching back to the rapacious Gold Rush of the 1850s, when San Francisco schooners navigated Willapa Bay in search of the native Olympia oyster. The take was anything but ecologically correct, with sections of tideflat shoveled up for use as ballast on the return trip.

The revival of the half-shell trade, coupled with a booming Asian market, has helped turn Washington's $40 million-a-year oyster industry into the nation's largest. It's bred a new generation of backyard farmers, who, taking advantage of aquaculture advances unique to the Northwest, grow coddled oysters for the restaurant table.

Forty-five minutes south of Seattle's chrome-and-oak shellfish bars, Harold Wiksten has spent four decades coaxing oysters out of Henderson Bay for a humbler market: Much of his harvest winds up in stews, the Thanksgiving stuffing or fried in the pan.

But the struggle to clean up those bottle-green bays and lagoons, among the longest-running and costliest efforts to protect shellfish beds in Puget Sound, offers a lesson in just how fragile that oyster renaissance is.

Since 1980, Wiksten's Minterbrook Oyster Co. has been forbidden from harvesting oysters on 35 acres of rich tidelands just outside their front door. Last month, the state placed similar restrictions on another nearby stretch of their clam and oyster beds.

"The oyster industry is more prosperous than ever," says Tim Smith of the Pacific Coast Oyster Growers Association. "It also has a more uncertain future. It's all about the water."

NATURE HASN'T yet created a better scorecard for Puget Sound.

A single oyster daily sucks in 40 or more gallons of water, straining out microscopic food. What flows downhill into the Sound becomes part of dinner.

Since 1986, the state has prohibited or restricted oyster growing on nearly 45,000 acres of commercial shellfish beds - a quarter of all available grounds - in Puget Sound. The culprit is usually the byproduct of population growth: Waste from farm livestock. Leaking septic systems. Stormwater debris.

Thanks to tougher laws and often painstaking community education, some of those once-fouled beds have begun to be reopened. Three Mason County communities taxed themselves to pay for cleaning up shellfish areas. At Burley Lagoon, just down the bay from Wiksten's tideflats, the state recently ruled the water clean enough for fellow oyster grower Jerry Yamashita to begin harvesting there for the first time in 12 years.

"For the time being," says Bob Woolrich of the state Department of Health, "we're holding our own."

Which in this business is no small achievement. Whether it's good enough for the oyster growers of Henderson Bay is another question.

At 1 a.m. on a cold, windless January night, Wiksten is doing what he's done such nights for the better part of his 66 years: trudging his big, ex-football player's body on patrol across his oyster grounds. The only noise is the sound of shells crunching and mud squishing underfoot.

And a little grousing. It seems the oysterman's doctor has told him to get some aerobic exercise. The doctor, says Wiksten, has obviously never walked tideflats in thigh-high wading boots.

In the distance, under the feathery light of kerosene lanterns, a mostly Mexican-American crew shovels seed oysters into a basket. They rhythmically toss the hefty loads, six basketfuls at a time, onto a beached scow. When they are out here, Wiksten usually is, too.

"It's like pouring water on a rock. Sometimes, you don't remember how everything is, so you walk the ground over and over." Wiksten deftly shucks an oyster, checking for color, firmness and curl, then with the poke of his knife, inspects the greenish innards to see how the creature is eating.

"Not too bad," he pronounces. "Only trouble is, how long can you grow oysters in this county?"

For a food so long linked to romance, the oyster has a confused libido of its own. It enters the world a free-swimming male, attaching himself to a shell or other hard object and dutifully fertilizing eggs for a year. Then he somehow switches to she, spawning up to 50 million spat a year.

You can witness a similar identity crisis by driving the winding, downhill road into Minterbrook, located at the head of the Key Peninsula a few minutes from the encroaching sprawl of Gig Harbor. The land is zoned rural. That has translated into a new shopping center and some small suburban cul-de-sacs at the top of the road, as well as a collage of backwoods cabins, trailers, hobby farms and a string of pricey new homes ringing Minter Bay.

Where once Puget Sound oyster farmers fought pulp mills and timber company greed, shellfish growers like Wiksten now battle - indirectly, at least - their growing number of neighbors. Few businesses have become as dependent on land-use rules in an era when such regulations are under siege. At times, it makes Wiksten feel a bit like the last vegetable farmer in the Kent Valley.

"Let's face it, taxes from oysters don't amount to much. But our demands, especially for clean water, are very high," says Wiksten. "A lot of people think its nice to have us here. A lot of people couldn't give a damn."

BACK AT THE BROOKLYN, the priciest oysters - say, a sweet-tasting Tenass Pass from Alaska or a Westcott Petite raised in a floating lantern net in the San Juans - fetch about two bucks each. One hundred forty years ago, at the height of Gold Rush fever in San Francisco, legend has it millionaire prospectors paid for a plate of Olympia oysters with $20 gold pieces.

The tiny, thin-shelled Oly - Puget Sound's only indigenous species - was collected all around Puget Sound for hundreds of years by Indians. With white settlement came appetites far more inexhaustible than supply. By 1855 in Shoalwater Bay, south of Grays Harbor, a journal noted precisely that 28 boats, 21 scows and 12 canoes were dedicated to the trade. A half-century later, many of the coastal oyster centers were nearly ghost towns.

Then came farming.

In 1892, South Puget Sound oyster growers persuaded the state Legislature to let them purchase tidelands, laying the pedigree for family companies that now dominate the industry. Private ownership also encouraged stewardship vastly different from the East Coast, where wild oysters were collected from common waters. Growers built elaborate dikes to nurture the fragile Olympias in protected water. Those proved little match though, for a Shelton pulp mill, whose discharge virtually wiped out the Olys by the 1950s.

Those oysters you buy at the Brooklyn under the lyrical name of the waters where they are reared are virtually all Pacific oysters, first introduced from Japan in the 1930s. Seed was imported until the 1970s, when Hood Canal hatcheries figured out how to breed them in large numbers.

Aquaculture has revolutionized the industry by making shellfish into what Northwest salmon and the region's other troubled fisheries rarely are anymore - a renewable resource.

It's also created a niche for retired psychiatrist Robert Wright, an accidental oysterman whose yearly harvest wouldn't cover a few days of Minterbrook's inventory. The health department says the number of registered growers - mostly small operators like Wright - has soared to nearly 300.

When he bought his waterfront home at Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island, he and his son wondered what to do with a big floating boat slip that came with the property. The Wrights began growing oysters in suspended cages, using special seeds grown in California for the half-shell trade. They produce about 50,000 a year, admired both for their taste and their unmarred shells, all eagerly snapped up by the Brooklyn and another restaurant. That's all the business Wright wants.

"A lot of people when they taste them, say, `These are the best oysters I've ever tasted," says Wright. "It's nothing magical I do. They just feed 24 hours a day in these waters."

Sadly, the new gourmet image of Northwest oysters is partly a product of their drastic decline elsewhere.

At the turn of the century, oyster houses were as plentiful in port towns as today's burger joints. Medical experts promised they would juice up your love life, raise your IQ, stave off anemia and cure goiter. But in traditional East Coast oystering grounds, only the skeleton of an industry remains - the victim of disease and urban growth. Chesapeake Bay oysters, among the most fabled of all, are pretty much a thing of the past. The image of Louisiana's still plentiful Gulf Coast oysters have been badly bruised from a sometimes fatal illness tied to eating raw oysters from those waters.

VISIT MINTERBROOK AND THE FIRST revelation is this: Large-scale oyster farming really is farming. Just substitute barges with boom winches for combines.

The tideflats, cleared of debris and sometimes layered with gravel, are seeded with starts born in hatcheries. Before reaching shucking size at age three, each oyster is shuffled from beach to beach two or three times. Inside the opening house, where oyster meat is bottled for retail sale, two dozen shuckers in rubber bibs work on both sides of a giant hopper that feeds their constantly jabbing knives an endless stream of oysters. No one has yet invented a machine that can do this tortuous work cleanly.

The grueling hand labor of oyster farms has changed little, though those who perform it have. Once Minterbrook's crews were local whites, then Koreans. Now they are mostly Mexican and Southeast Asian immigrants.

Wiksten, who grew up just short bike ride away, started hanging around Minter Bay at age 14, carting oyster shells in a wheelbarrow. After going off to Oregon on a football scholarship and stint in the Navy, he bought out his former boss. With his meaty hands, off-kilter baseball cap and shucking knife blade poking out of a hole in his parka, Wiksten looks like a Life magazine image of the oyster farmer.

In fact, he's nurtured the company into one of the state's largest oyster operations, with 300 acres of tidelands and a sales market that stretches from Asia to the East Coast.

His job requirement changed in 1980, when the state ordered Minter Bay closed. Wiksten served on clean-water task forces. He built an expensive model septic system at his plant to show others how it could be done. And Wiksten, practitioner of he calls the "Howard Cosell School of Diplomacy," became increasingly cranky, leading opposition to proposed new subdivisions.

No wonder: An acre of oysters yields about $40,000 to $60,000 every three years and if planted in clams, vastly more. The closures have forced Minterbrook to buy more of the oysters it shucks and sells from growers in Willapa Bay. Wiksten has also searched British Columbia for new land.

Now, after 15 years, the oysterman says he'll sue Pierce County if Minter Bay isn't cleaned up. It's a challenge to familiar anecdotes waved around by property-rights advocates: What happens if an oyster grower is harmed by the actions of another private land owner if the government doesn't enforce regulations?

At an early community meeting, a farmer rose in anger at the suggestion that cows and sheep grazing in creeks were to blame for pollution at Minter Bay and Burley Lagoon. Why should he pay to solve some other guy's business problem? "I don't eat oysters," the farmer shouted, "I eat beef."

State officials estimate $900,000 - mostly in state grants - has been spent trying to find the source of problems and remedy those in these waters.

Technicians walked the five streams and countless road ditches flowing into Minter Bay and Burley Lagoon. Volunteers strung thousands of feet of fence to keep horses and cattle out of streams. They learned over the years that selling people like the beef-eater on their self-interest in clean water was as important as laws. When the county last surveyed Minter Bay in 1988, Jim Hoyle of the Pierce County Health Department says a third of the land owners never bothered to reply or told inspectors to take a hike.

In Burley Lagoon, a major offender turned out to be a defective sewer system at a shopping center just a few hundred feet from the oyster beds.

Still, Pierce County officials seem wary of being in the business of protecting its handful of oyster farmers. One moment, newly elected county commissioner Karen Biske says she is troubled by how long the county let Minter Bay pollution fester; the next, she is blaming the state for not taking vigorous action against offending property owners. State grant money for Minter Bay was exhausted years ago.

Most importantly, Pierce County, unlike many other local governments, claims it has no power to force property owners to have their septic systems tested.

"We should look at every house, I grant you," says Hoyle. "A lot of property owners don't want us tromping around on their land . . . Education about clean water has come a long way, but there's still a lot of sentiment that it's the shellfish industry's problem."

For all the recent progress in cleaning up parts of the Sound, Tim Smith of the oyster growers association says Minter Bay symbolizes their anxiety.

The state ecology department no longer has a shellfish protection program and the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, a key advocate for growers , will go out of business at the end of this year unless the Legislature rescues it. State money for battling pollution in these bays is drying up - and with it, worries Smith, the ability or will of local governments to maintain gains made in places like Burley Lagoon. Legal recognition of Native American's rights to a greater share of the take makes the loss of any more grounds critical.

AS HE NEARS the end of his work night, Wiksten stops at a skinny pole stuck in the mud.

Last October, state officials said he couldn't harvest oysters south of the marker. "Brand A.," he says, pointing north. Looking the other direction, he chuckles. "Brand X. Can't eat it. What I've got to figure out is if it's bad down here, what's going to happen up there?"

The Brooklyn has turned the act of eating - and marketing - oysters into a cause. There on the menu, on the "Oyster Eaters Bill of Rights," is a promise that the bivalve on your plate is both an integral part of Northwest history and harvested from certified clean waters. That each one is from the Brand A side of the line. After all, what they're selling is the water.

If Wiksten's Minter Bay grounds remain closed for harvesting, it won't signal some gloomy new saga of decline in the history of oystering. But considering what's happened when population pressure meets shellfish farming elsewhere, opening the bay would give local oyster lovers something worth bragging about over their cocktail sauce.

Jim Simon is a Pacific staff writer. His e-mail address is jsim-new@seatimes.com Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer. ----------------------------------------------------------------- HIGH TECH ON THE HALF-SHELL

In a giant wax-and-Vaseline-coated plastic pan, workers at Taylor United's Hood Canal hatchery coax nearly invisible oyster seeds into clinging on to a piece of ground-up shell less than one-hundredth the size of a contact lens.

If all goes well over the next three years, those specks will wind up on the half-shell at restaurant tables under evocative names like Windy Points or Totten Inlets.

A decade ago, Bill Taylor, president of the Shelton-based Taylor United, estimates that fewer than 5 percent of all Washington oysters were sold live and in the shell. That figure is now about 20 percent, courtesy of a booming demand in Asia and restaurants where raw oysters are back in fashion.

Taylor United, one of the state's largest growers, now sells half its harvest live - a testimony to how new production techniques at the half-dozen local hatcheries are changing both the industry and oyster-eating habits. Growers were once worried that their pool of customers were getting grayer and smaller. Taylor's current problem is very different: They are searching for ways of making oysters spawn year-round, a quest that has led them to set up an experimental seed hatchery in Hawaii's warm waters.

Since the 1970s most Washington oysters have been grown from hatchery-raised seed. Coast Oyster Co.'s plant, just across Dabob Bay from Taylor's Hood Canal operation, is the world's largest hatchery.

But in recent years, scientists have begun raising "singles" - unattached oysters that can be grown unmarred for the half-shell trade - in commercially viable quantities.

That's aided a new crop of growers, often people without enough tideland holdings for traditional farming. Many grow painstakingly-tended singles from hatchery seed solely for local restaurants. Hatcheries are also reviving boutique oyster breeds - the fragile Olympia, the Northwest's only native species, Kumomotos and European flats - that won't spawn naturally in our waters. ----------------------------------------------------------------- HOW TAYLOR UNITED'S DABOB BAY HATCHERY RAISE THAT SINGLE OYSTER:

1. To force reproduction on demand, oysters are "conditioned" by heavy feeding and a gradual warming of the water so they are tricked into believing that it is the summer spawning season. They are then "shocked" into actual spawining when the water temperature is raised very quickly..

2. The larvae, which in the wild would swim free for about 15 days before attaching themselves to shells and transforming into seeds, are placed in 10,000-gallon tanks of sea water and fed algae raised by the hatchery. Taylor grows about 1.2 billion Pacific oyster larvae each year, as wellas starts for sic other species.

3. The larvae are separated out through a strainer, then placed in a tank where technicians hope they will attach themselves to microscopic-size pieces of shell and transform into a single seed.

4. The seeds are placed in outside nursery tanks until they reach about two to threee millimeters. They are transplanted first to a float system in Oakland Bay near Shelton, then later to the beach or in racks, where they grow to harvest size in 18 months to three years.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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