The History and Types of Oysters in the PNW

The History of PNW Oysters

Seafood, and oysters in particular, are the cornerstone upon which our establishment is built. The Pacific Northwest has always been known for its relationship with the Sea, with the native peoples of the area consuming and utilizing oysters in particular for over 4000 years.

With the arrival of European-American settlers to the Puget Sound area in the 1840’s, a number of natural resource extraction industries emerged, including forestry, mining, fishing and canneries, and of course, oyster farming.

In Washington, the commercial industry started in 1851 to supply the intense demand for oysters generated during the Californian gold rush. Like any heavily farmed stock, oysters benefited from university, federal, and state research which resulted in artificial culture techniques, spat collectors, and oyster hatcheries which work for all species.

Today, Oysters are big business in our state.

Industry Snapshot:

  • Washington produces more oysters than any other state
  • 5 species of oyster are grown here
  • There are over 330 commercial shellfish growers in our state
  • The industry provides over 2,700 jobs
  • Oysters and shellfish generate over $184 million per year in revenue
  • The industry is supported by strong statewide environmental laws, clean water, and good natural habitat for growing oysters.
  • Washington state is the only state in the country that allows for the private ownership of tidelands (other states hold them in trust)

PNW Oyster Species

So you like Oysters? Let’s dig a little deeper. Here is some interesting information about the 5 species of oysters grown here in Washington.

The Pacific Oyster (Crassostrea gigas)

  • 98% of the oysters grown in WA
  • Can be very diverse in taste, size. The term for oysters adopting the characteristics of their surroundings is “merroir”
  • Came originally from Japan in 1919
  • Often are named for the bay or area from which they came, all taste different based on the micro-system they grew in (this is true of most oysters)

The Olympia Oyster (Ostrea lurida)

  • Native oyster to Washington state
  • Generally smaller (size of a postage stamp)
  • “Huge” coppery flavor
  • Nearly disappeared, resurged in the 1980’s

The Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea)

  • Arrived in Washington in 1947, as oyster farmers scrambled to re-establish Japanese sources after WWII
  • Water was generally too cold for Kumamotos to reproduce naturally (now they’re grown in trays)
  • WWII generation was not keen on eating a product with a Japanese name
  • Became popular in the 1980’s
  • Considered the best “learning” oyster, subtle briny yet sweet flavor and size are manageable to a new oyster consumer
  • Taylor Shellfish farms is known for their Kumamoto stock, and in fact saved the species after it became nearly extinct in it’s native Japan

The Virginica (Crassostrea virginica)

  • Grown only by Taylor Shellfish farms (more common on the east coast)
  • Taylor Virginicas won a 2008 Rhode Island oyster competition for “best flavor” and second place overall. The competition featured 19 oyster farms ranging from New England to the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Virginicas seem to only thrive in Totten Inlet (between Olympia and Shelton)

The European Flat (Belon) (Ostrea edulis)

  • Grown extensively in Willapa Bay, South Puget and North sound prior to 1930
  • First non-native oyster introduced to the Pacific Northwest in the 1870’s
  • Brought back in the 1990’s
  • On the verge of extinction in Europe
  • “That” oyster – the aphrodisiac of Rome, the French Renaissance, and European romance
  • Once grew plentifully in the Thames and other estuaries
  • Flat “dinner plate” shell
  • Intense flavor profile

Armed with this historical, modern, and oyster variety information, we hope that as you enjoy our fare, you’ll have a new appreciation for these tasty shellfish!

Oyster on, friends.