History of Eating Northwest Pacific Oysters

The Natives

Centuries before the arrival of European settlement, the native tribes on the Pacific Northwest coast consumed animals from the sea. The Siwash or “Fish Eaters” included oysters in their diet. This was evident when large piles of discarded shells were discovered, with specimens dating back to 3000-4000 years. Back then, the natives used oysters respectfully. As more immigrants began to establish settlements along the coastal region, the native people realized the value of Oysters. They started harvesting oysters for trade with their new neighbors. It was very common in the cities to see natives selling baskets of oysters to the new settlers. Although there was evidence that the natives harvested oysters and used them as a meal, the amount they consumed was not enough to deplete the naturally occurring oyster beds.

Pacific oysters in Washington State

In the early days of the boom in the oyster industry, the oyster harvesters did not make any conservative efforts towards preserving the sea animals. The new settlers who arrived in Washington held the belief that natural resources are a gift from God. This led to the excessive exploitation of natural resources like oysters and salmon.

After the depletion of the Oyster beds in Northern California and Oregon, sailing ships headed for Willapa Bay. After some years, Washington’s native oyster beds were also depleted. Some Oyster harvesters identified the problem and began to take measures to establish regulations in the oyster industry.

In 1890, the Washington state legislature passed the Callow Act. This allowed oyster farmers to purchase tidelands from the government, so long as they contained no natural beds. Subsequently, Farmers started importing and planting seeds of Pacific oysters from Japan. This species was easier to manage compared to the native Olympia Oysters. Until the present day, the primary focus of the industry is on growing oysters. Because natural oyster beds will not be able to provide the numbers needed to meet market demands.

Currently, the Oyster industry in Washington harvests more than 7 million pounds of oyster meat annually.  That is why Oyster meat is still very much available fresh from the Bay at the Oyster Bar.