Wednesday, March 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shell Game -- Oysters Are At The Top Of The Food Chain At Taylor Shellfish In Shelton

Seattle Times Columnist

Some creatures just know how to live. Take that slippery, gray bivalve, the oyster.

While we were stewing about the long, gray days of winter here, millions of oyster larvae were vacationing in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii.


Every year Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton ships millions of oyster larvae there for the winter so they can soak up nutrients in warmer waters with more sunlight and continue growing.

The oyster-growing season here is only about four to six months, says Jeff Pearson, director of marketing for Taylor Shellfish.

And like most of us, oysters tend to gain weight while vacationing, only in their case it's a bit more dramatic.

When they leave for Hawaii, a clump of about 10 million single oyster larvae roughly equals the size of a golf ball.

After two to three months of chowing down, even with a 60 to 80 percent rate of attrition, the golf-ball size clump of oyster seeds has plumped up to require four 2-cubic-foot boxes for the return flight.

That's just one oyster fact you'll learn on an oyster getaway in South Puget Sound and a free tour of the Taylor Shellfish plant.

The great-grandfather of the present generation of Taylors was J.Y. Waldrip, who harvested his first bushel of Olympia oysters in the 1880s.

Justin Taylor, father of the present generation in the family business, and his brother, the late Edwin Taylor, dreamed of a state-of-the-art shellfish company. The present generation of Taylors continues to work toward that goal and plans a remodeling this year.

Taylor, with 250 employees, is the eighth largest employer in Mason County, preceded by Simpson Timber, the Shelton School District, the Washington Corrections Center, the Little Creek Casino, Mason County, Mason General Hospital and North Mason School District. The largest shellfish farm on the West Coast, Taylor is the U.S.'s largest producer of Manila clams and farms blue mussels as well as Pacific, Kumamoto, Olympia, Belon or European flats, and Eastern or Crassostrea virginica oysters.

The company uses properties in Hood Canal, Oakland Bay, Totten and Eld inlets in South Puget Sound, as well as Samish Bay, Skagit County, Willapa Bay, Pacific County, and Whidbey Island.

Some properties are owned by Taylor, others are leased. However these sites are not open to the public. Taylor also sells seed to hobbyists who raise oysters.

Because shellfish farmers depend on the tides to do their work, they aren't 9-to-5 folks. Their work schedules change an hour every day. It's wet, cold and heavy work. And in the winter, a big sales season because oysters generally are at their best, workers look a bit like miners, with their head lamps and lanterns, to take advantage of middle-of-the-night tides.

State and federal regulations require a shellfish shipping tag that details the type of oyster, harvest date, shipping date and harvest location or growing area. That means extensive tracking and labeling, which is useful if there is an outbreak of "red tide" or paralytic shellfish poison toxin, or a pollution problem.

At the Taylor Shellfish processing plant, a camera grades oysters by size. Those shipped in the shell are lovingly packed cup side down to retain the juices and keep the oyster meat moist and fresh. If they're packed with the flat side of the shell down, when oysters open periodically the juice runs out, leaving the meat drier upon arrival at their destination.

At the Taylor plant you'll observe lines of workers standing on crates shucking oysters at break-neck speed. Other workers weigh, clean and pack the oysters.

You'll also see glazed and flash-frozen oysters on the half shell being packed for export to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Another batch of oysters frozen on the half shell is destined for buffet lines on cruise ships.

The only place you'll see more oyster shucking than at the Taylor plant would be March 26 at the "Oyster Olympics" at Anthony's HomePort at Shilshole Bay in Seattle, 6135 Seaview Ave N.W. The event benefits Puget Soundkeeper Alliance's water clean-up and education programs. Tickets are $50 and $65. Call Puget Soundkeeper Alliance at 206-286-1309 for details.

Or possibly at OysterFest, the first full weekend each October at the Mason County Fairgrounds, where the West Coast Oyster Shucking Championship and Washington State Seafood Festival are held each year.

If you go:

Free tours at the Taylor Shellfish plant (below) are given between 9 a.m. and noon Monday through Thursday. The tours, which include a 19-minute video, take about 40 minutes. Phone 360-426-6178 to make an appointment.

The drive from Seattle to the Taylor plant is about 78 miles. Go south on Interstate 5 past Olympia, turn right onto Highway 101, and travel six miles to a fork in the highway. Continue on 101 for another 9.3 miles to the Taylor plant, S.E. 130 Lynch Rd., just east of Shelton. The plant is immediately behind Taylor Towne restaurant, on the right. ------------------------------- BEACH EATS

A primer on digging, preparing and eating clams and assorted bounty from Long Beach and Washington' other coastal areas. Look for the Food/Travel Northwest section Wednesday, March 25.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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