150 years of oyster farming

The Tillamook and Netarts bays are renowned for their oysters, which today are produced almost exclusively by commercial farming operations.

Of course, native oysters were a fixture in Tillamook County well before "farming" them began. In 1859, the shanty town Oyster Bay settlement was born south of Whiskey Creek, near the current Whiskey Creek Oyster Hatchery. Soon after, harvesting native oysters in Netarts was a thriving business.

A Web site maintained by the Netarts Community Council reports that in 1867, local resident Tim Goodale wrote that schooners made the trip to Netarts regularly from San Francisco, paying 50 cents for every bushel of oysters delivered on board. Oysters also made their way to San Francisco via a 30-mule train.

Thanks to the California Gold Rush and resulting population explosion, the demand for oysters blossomed. That, in turn, resulted in over-harvesting the native oyster population up and down the Northwest coast.

The annual harvest of Olympia oysters in Washington State reached 130,000 bushels by the 1890s, according to the Nature Conservancy of Oregon. But within 20 years, production had declined to just 16,000 bushels. And oyster populations had disappeared just as fast in Oregon and California.

What oysters remained in Netarts Bay were consumed primarily by local residents, with too few left to ship elsewhere.

So in 1928, Jesse Hayes planted oyster seed from Japan into Tillamook Bay, where no oysters existed. In so doing, Hays laid the groundwork for an industry still going strong today - although not without its trials and tribulations.

Hayes' grandson, also named Jesse, now oversees the Hayes Oyster Company in Tillamook. He said his grandfather's notion to farm oysters started in 1910, when he found an oyster shell in dredge spoils along the main channel of Tillamook Bay that had been created by the Army Corps of Engineers. "Seeing that lone oyster shell made him think oysters might grow here. At that time, there was no history or other signs of oysters in Tillamook Bay."

Having heard from salmon fishermen that a new Japanese oyster seed was available in Canada, Hayes imported and planted the seed in Tillamook Bay. It was the first farming operation of its kind in Oregon.

In the early 1930s, Hayes and other residents of the Bay City area leased land from the state for oyster cultures. At least 16 members of the Hayes' family were employed by the business.

But just as oyster farming in Tillamook Bay was picking up speed, the fledgling industry was confronted by the consequences of the region's worst natural disaster. The Tillamook Burn, a series of four fires between 1933 and 1951, destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of timber. The loss of these trees, coupled with the resultant salvage logging operations, significantly increased the amount of sediment entering Tillamook Bay. That, in turn, impaired the quality of the water, making certain of the oyster plats unproductive.

Regardless, the Hayes family persisted with oyster farming.

"In the late 1930s," said Jesse Hayes, "(my grandfather's) commercial salmon, clam and crab business was already beginning to show signs of decline. As those businesses declined, oystering became more important and soon became the family's only business."

Before World War II, said Hayes, canned oysters were prominent because they could be shipped long distances and used in food such as stews. After the war, he said, the emphasis shifted to shipping fresh oysters in jars.

"We quit canning," Hayes said. "At that time, you couldn't get fresh oysters in Des Moines."

But Mother Nature wasn't through throwing up roadblocks.

In 1917, a jetty had been constructed in Tillamook Bay to create a better harbor. Unfortunately, the project altered the shape of the channel and led to rapid erosion of Bayocean Spit.

Then, in 1952, a breach in the spit allowed seawater to roll into Tillamook Bay, upsetting the ecological balance of the estuary. As did the fires of the Tillamook Burn, the breach deposited vast amounts of sediment into the bay. The breach was repaired by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1956.

The Hayes family played a vital role in repairing the damage, said Jesse. "We gave the oyster land, where today the parking lot and road is driving out onto the spit,  to the county so the Army Corps of Engineers could build the existing jetty to save the bay and the oyster industry."

In addition, Hayes was a member of the delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., to successfully lobby, with help from Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse, for $11 million for the restoration project.

Thus, the going has not always been easy for Tillamook County's oyster farming industry. And now, in addition to the struggle to maintain the health of the oyster population and a stable harvest in the Tillamook and Netarts bays, farmers must deal with the realities of a changing marketplace.

(Next Week: A look at the modern oyster industry and how today's farmers deal with regulation, a shifting market and a sometimes unstable supply of seed stock.)

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