By Emily Hamann
On a sunny summer day, it’s not uncommon for a line to stretch out the door and down the street at Drayton Harbor Oyster Company’s tiny oyster bar in Blaine. The barbecue is set up on the sidewalk, full of grilled oysters.
As more people have heard about this hole-in-the-wall oyster spot, shellfish enthusiasts are willing to cross the border from British Columbia and drive from as far as Oregon to try the oysters, which are harvested just hours before getting sold and served.
Drayton Harbor Oyster Company has more than doubled its sales every year it’s been open, and it’s now eyeing an expansion.
But, not too long ago, no one knew if anyone would ever be able to grow oysters in Drayton Harbor again.
Steve Seymour started farming oysters in Blaine in the mid ‘80s, when he started working with Canadian company Neptune Aqua Farms, which had an oyster operation in Drayton Harbor. Eventually, that operation went broke and pulled out of the area, Seymour said, and he and Geoff Menzies, another local who had been working there, decided to buy out Neptune and take over the oyster operation for themselves.
They invested more than $10,000 in oyster seed, or the tiny oyster larvae about the size of a grain of sand. Just as the oysters were getting big enough to sell, disaster struck.
In 1995, the Washington State Department of Health declared a huge swath of the harbor off limits to shellfish harvesting, after pollution levels in the water got too high.
“When that happened I thought maybe that was it,” Seymour said. They salvaged what oysters they could that season, but then in 1999 the entire bay became too polluted, and was shut for harvesting entirely. The business was essentially dead. Or so Seymour thought.
He moved on, taking a job at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Menzies, however, didn’t give up.
He focused his efforts on cleaning up the harbor.
It was a daunting task. The harbor was polluted with a specific type of bacteria which, in elevated amounts, can make people sick.There’s number of causes of the bacteria. It comes from failing septic systems, runoff from farmland fertilized with manure, or even from people who don’t pick up after their dogs.
Menzies teamed up with Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and worked with the state to identify the sources of pollution. Plans went into place. Dairy farms started implementing manure management programs; the city of Blaine built a new sewer treatment plant; and the state started cracking down on failing septic systems.
“When we first started coming in here and looking at the sources, you know, there was 500 some odd septic systems in the basin,” Seymour said. “And roughly a third of them were failing. People just didn’t maintain them.”
Their efforts began paying off. In 2004, parts of the harbor were approved for seasonal opening. They could harvest oysters in the summer, but were still closed in the winter, when the rain can wash more pollutants into the harbor.
Menzies was once again harvesting oysters from Drayton Harbor, operating a community oyster farm. Around 2014, Seymour had retired from his career at the state, and his son Mark Seymour moved back to Blaine. They took over the lease from Menzies, and began operating as Drayton Harbor Oyster Company.
“Geoff is the darn hero,” Steve Seymour said. “He kept the lease alive.”
All of the hard work came to fruition in 2016, when the harbor was approved for year-round harvesting.
They found the storefront on Peace Portal Way in Blaine and started selling oysters directly to customers for the first time.
That direct point of contact has helped one of their main goals — keeping everybody thinking about water quality.
“Part of the challenge is to keep the attention. You know, you get upgraded and everybody says, ‘oh we’re done’,” Steve Seymour said. “No, we’re not done. We’re never done.”
Potentially, the pollution levels could rise again. They’re constantly relying on the people of Whatcom County to do their part to keep waste out of the water.
“It’s probably my biggest concern about this business,” Steve Seymour said. “There’s a lot of things that affect it, but water quality we just don’t have a lot of control over.”
Oysters are unlike a lot of other agricultural products. They’re filter feeders and are able to quickly adapt to whatever water they’re placed in. So even if they’re grown in polluted water, if they’re placed in clean water, they’ll eventually clean themselves out, sometimes over the course of just a few weeks.
So if parts of the harbor are closed, the oysters can either be moved to cleaner water, or they can stay where they are and wait it out. In that case the oysters will just get bigger and bigger. But if they get too big to serve raw on a half-shell, restaurants don’t want them anymore. Before opening the oyster bar, they would have had to sell those big oysters to be shucked and canned at a fraction of the price of what they could sell them to a restaurant for. But now, those large oysters can just be sold streetside, directly to customers.
“As a small business just starting out with limited product, this tiny, 320-square foot building was really, really important to get us off the ground and get us rolling,” Mark Seymour said. “Because it did let our product go a lot further than it would any other way.”
Another helpful thing about the oyster business is that there’s almost no wasted product — if they harvest an oyster and it doesn’t sell, they can just put it back in the water.
That was especially helpful just starting out — before they got a handle on the day-to-day demand for their product.
Opening the oyster bar has also given them more options about who they sell to — they can decide which chefs are going to do to the best job showcasing Drayton oysters.
“It’s been cool to be able to pick and choose and be able to work with chefs we connect with and chefs that appreciate the story,” Mark Seymour said.
Over the years, oysters have become more and more of an artisan commodity. When Steve Seymour first got into the business, he was just growing oysters as large as possible, and selling them wholesale to be shucked and put into cans.
Now there’s a whole group of oyster enthusiasts who seek out raw or grilled oysters in the same way connoisseurs seek out wine.
“For grapes, they taste a certain way depending on the soil. It’s the exact same thing for oysters,” Mark Seymour said. “You really get that experience with the raw ones.” Like wine, oysters taste different based on where they’re from.
“That also is the reason we’ve been so successful up to this point is because we hit it at the right time, when the public is going out and eating oysters, and food in general,” Mark Seymour said. “They want the experience. They want the story behind it. They want to know where their food comes from.”
Now the oyster bar has gotten so popular they’re eyeing a bigger place. Mark Seymour said they plan to move next door, into a former barber shop, sometime in the next year. It’ll be around three times bigger, and offer views of the harbor, and the even the oyster farm itself.
“It’ll still be small,” Steve Seymour said. “Part of our success is the vibe here, that little hole in the wall place. So we’re going to strive to keep that.”
The vision, Mark Seymour said, is for customers at the oyster bar to be able to sit out with binoculars and watch the oysters come out of the water, watch as the boat comes back to shore, and be able to eat oysters taken out of the water just minutes earlier.
The new place will also offer some options, just in case the water quality drops again, and oysters are unharvestable.
“Let’s say we got into a situation where the winter closures got put back,” Steve Seymour said. “I think we would be OK, because we expect to diversify with other product.”
They’ve developed relationships with other Blaine fishermen who have been looking for ways to showcase their own product locally.
The oyster company now has four employees, who split their time between serving customers at the oyster bar and working on the farm on the water. That means they’re all able to tell customers about the product and where it comes from.
“And our customers love seeing people behind the bar in extra tough boots and waders and stuff like that,” Mark Seymour said. “Mud on thier face. That speaks to the freshness right there.”
By next summer, they hope to be in the new location. Not only will it offer more space inside, but they’ll have outdoor seating in the adjacent public plaza, too.
“We feel like that corner can be something really iconic for Blaine,” Mark Seymour said. “This town hasn’t had fresh local seafood in a long time.”
It’s just been recently that Blaine has begun seeing more activity in its downtown.
“Just in a couple years I’ve seen the traffic and the growth and people moving from Bellingham north,” Mark Seymour said. “But there’s not enough to do up here.”
Edaleen Dairy opened a shop in downtown Blaine around the same time the Seymours opened the oyster bar, the first wave in what, Mark Seymour hopes, could become a trend.
“We’ve got this really pedestrian driven town that needs more local businesses,” he said. “I feel like us and Edaleen, we’ve really created a buzz.”
Blaine, now mostly known for its border crossing and bird watching, could be the new destination for fresh seafood.
“I think there’s a lot of people on board now to kind of wake this quiet little town up.”