I have been a very lazy blogger lately – been busy with the usual December crazyness (organizing cards, cookie baking, keeping kid entertained on winter break, Christmas presents, decorating…) so I thought I might just put up the occasional “reprints” of past newsletter articles. This one, about the native oyster, was published back in fall 2009.
THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE
In a relatively short period of time – 150 years – the ecology of our native land has changed radically, with the loss of some species and introduction of new ones. Many of the animals that have disappeared locally – grizzly bears, wolves, fur seals, sea otters – aren’t likely to ever return (unless some future introduction program of sea otters is ever successful). But one native that was lost – the Olympia oyster – has quietly returned, all on its own.
The Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida, also known as Ostrea conchaphila) is the only species of oyster native to the Oregon coast. It’s range is from southern Alaska to Baja California. They are quite small – growing to a maximum size of 3 ½ inches – but are reported to be delicious.i For a time in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was a lively commercial harvest of this oyster. The native oyster’s numbers have declined greatly since white settlement of the Pacific northwest, and has disappeared completely from some estuaries. Biologists think commercial overharvesting, heavy siltation of the estuaries from human disturbances in the upland, and possibly competition with newly introduced species all helped to decrease the numbers of the Olympia oyster. Almost all the oysters that are raised, harvested and eaten along the Oregon coast today are from introduced populations of Japanese oysters (Crossostrea gigas) or in some cases Atlantic oysters (C. virginica).
The word for oyster in Hanis is tláuxkai, Milluk tláukai, and in Siuslaw/Umpqua q’áinikw. While not one of the staple foods, they were enjoyed as variety in the diet along with other shellfish like razor clams, mussels, barnacles, rock oysters and clams. In the past, Olympia oysters were common enough in Coos Bay to turn up in middens at archaeological sites and in old dredge spoils. However, there were no oysters in the bay when white settlers began moving in. According to Lottie Evanoff, daughter of Coos chief Doloos Jackson, the oysters died out after a terrible forest fire which caused a lot of silt to run into the bay, choking the old oyster beds.ii This happened not many years before white settlement.
It is less clear if the Umpqua and Siuslaw estuaries once hosted populations of Olympia oyster. The Umpqua estuary probably once did since today commercially grown oysters thrive so it is reasonable to think Olympia oysters could have thrived there too. But there are no clear historical records to document it. I suspect the Siuslaw may not have had oysters, or if there were populations there they were quite small, as the Siuslaw estuary itself is quite small. Siuslaw people gathered rocky shore foods (like sea bird eggs, barnacles, mussels and so forth) from the Heceta Headlands to Tenmile Creek (Stonefield wayside) in the north, but those areas probably did not host populations of Olympia oysters either.
Remarkably, after a long absence of 160 years (or perhaps longer), the Olympia oysters returned to Coos Bay. A small population turned up in the 1980s in Haynes inlet, near the commercial oyster beds. Since then, they have increased their numbers and have established populations in other parts of the bay; North Slough, South Slough, and even one small population near the highway bridge over Shinglehouse Slough.iii
So how did the Olympia oysters reappear in Coos Bay after such a long absence? According to ODFW shellfish biologist Scott Groth, genetic studies point to an origin in Willapa Bay, Washington. They apparently hitched a ride with pacific oysters brought in by a commercial fishery.iv From there, these Willapa Bay colonists have reestablished themselves throughout the bay.Perhaps one day soon, we will be able to enjoy tlaukai, q’ainikw at gatherings again.
iMcConnaughey, Bayard H & Evelyn McConnaughey1985. National Audobon Society Nature Guides: Pacific Coast. Alfred A. Knopf, NY.
iiHarrington, John P. Ethnographic and Historical notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, National anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
iii Groth, Steve, and Steve Rumrill. 2009. History of Olympia Oysters (Ostrea lurida Carpenter 1864) in Oregon estuaries, and a description of recovering populations in Coos Bay. Journal of Shellfish Research vol 28, no 1, 51-58.
ivSteve Groth, personal communication.