Surrounded by a spiral of succulent Pacific oysters on a tray of ice, the Olympia—its flat shell just larger than a dollar coin—might appear, as Mark Twain once wrote, “a poor, insipid little thing.” But as Twain discovered while traveling the Pacific Northwest in the 1860s, eating oysters by the bushel, the Olympia’s unassuming appearance belies an impressive taste, and today, an even greater comeback story.
“Olympias have a strong copper, horseradish flavor,” says Shina Wysocki, who runs Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar in downtown Olympia, Washington, with her brother Kyle Lentz. Until a few years ago, it didn’t make economic sense for local shellfish farms like Chelsea to cultivate the city’s namesake oysters. Olys, as they’re known, take longer to mature—three to five years, compared with a year or less for Pacifics—and are more sensitive to extreme water temperatures. Consumers weren’t demanding them, so oyster farms weren’t investing in these delicate bivalves. That’s all changing now. “People really want to feel a connection to their food and the place where their food comes from,” Wysocki says.
For millennia, the sinuous inlets branching off Puget Sound near Olympia were prime harvesting grounds for the West Coast’s only native species of oysters, whose habitat ranged from southern Alaska to Baja California. Olympias were a central part of the local Native American diet and in the mid-1800s became big business for settlers who shipped them to San Francisco, where a bacon-and-oyster omelet called the Hangtown Fry was a popular dish among gold miners. But in the face of Washington State’s booming development and increasing pollution, the oysters were soon clinging to the back corners of the Sound’s inlets for their very survival. By the early 1900s, the hardier Pacific oyster—imported from Japan—had become the bivalve of choice for commercial farmers. Today, Olympias occupy just 5 percent of their historical habitat.
Individual efforts to promote Olys began in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that a bevy of governmental, tribal, and nonprofit environmental organizations, as well as private landowners, began working together to revive the struggling Olympia, which is a vital part of a healthy Puget Sound: A single oyster filters eight to 12 gallons of water a day, consuming algae and thus purifying their environs, while their shells help create habitats for a host of tiny invertebrates eaten by juvenile salmon, another one of the Sound’s struggling populations.
Central to the recovery is the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF), which produces 2 million baby, or seed, Olympia oysters a year for the rehabilitation projects. The nonprofit has set a goal of restoring 100 acres of Olympias by 2020; today, they’re at 67 percent of the target. “Oysters provide really important ecosystem functions along our shorelines,” says PSRF founder and executive director Betsy Peabody. “We do this work so that we make sure that we have waters where people can still harvest local food.”