The Oyster Kings: Family built shellfish business "one shovelful at a time"

By Patricia Guthrie
For the Bellingham Business Journal

Bill Taylor looks out at Samish Bay as the waterline creeps lower and lower on a dreary overcast April day.

“When the tide goes out, what’s exposed, we own it,” he says peering out at a 5-acre chunk of muck. “It will go completely dry from the shore over to Samish Island,” he says pointing out from his rustic office located on a dead-end road off Chuckanut Drive in Bow, about 13 miles south of Bellingham.

As more of the gray bay is exposed, darkening tones of sand and sky seem to blend together, creating a double-image of still life along the tidal flats of the Pacific Northwest.

Low tide, high tide, minus tide. Such cycles have marked the days and nights of Bill and his younger brother, Paul, for as long as they can remember, since the days that their father, Justin Taylor, began passing along the family business that began with ancestor J.Y. Waldrip.

“In Olympia, I grew up falling out of my Dad’s boat working out on the bay,” Bill recalls with a smile. “I was digging clams at age 6.”

Waldrip, a former frontiersman roaming from Arizona to Alaska to Alberta trying his hand as a gold miner, pharmacist, blacksmith, and Army horse breeder, settled on oystering with a 300-acre tideland title in the late 1880s.

Justin Taylor died in 2011 at the age of 90. He is remembered as a “humble giant,” the one who built the family venture into the nation’s largest shellfish-farming operation “one shovelful at a time.”

In his three children (including daughter Janet Pearson) he instilled an environmentalist ethic, teaching them the importance of water quality and conserving the ecosystem of Puget Sound.

Now, Justin Taylor, dressed in his ever-present work shirt, bill cap and waders greets visitors to Samish Bay Farm in the form of a metal sculpture attached to a wood piling.

Clam rake at the ready, coffee cup in hand, the memorial slips in and out with the tide, placing the patriarch at his favorite position “down on the flats.”

This small Skagit County shellfish operation, which includes a farm retail store of all things fresh and fishy, including Dungeness crab, salmon, halibut, and vats of oysters on ice, shucked and smoked, a few picnic tables and a grill available for alfresco outings, is just a sliver of the Taylor enterprise that’s spread from Hood Canal to Hong Kong.

Dozens of bags of clams pile up from one day's work  during a minus tide this spring on Samish Bay.
Dozens of bags of clams pile up from one day’s work during a minus tide this spring on Samish Bay.

Geoducks pack big bucks

Familiar to locals by the simple company logo of a heron atop wood pilings, Taylor Shellfish is a fifth-generation family business proud of its rugged western Washington roots and long ties to land and water. But it’s also grown into a power player in the burgeoning business of bivalves — mussel farmers with some serious muscle.

Long the leading producer of manila clams, it’s now one of the biggest exporters of the Evergreen State’s strange claim-to-fame clam, the hefty, hilarious-looking geoduck, which is revered as a delicacy in China and Hong Kong.

“It’s mostly Asian communities that want the geoduck but we’re starting to see more going to white-tablecloth restaurants locally,” Bill Taylor explains. Not easy or fast to produce, the world’s largest burrowing clam requires six years to grow to market size and needs 6-inch diameter PVC pipes or mesh pipe to protect them. Then comes the fun part, plunging an arm two to three-feet into the muck and pulling out the squirting mollusk by its neck.

Company spokesman Bill Dewey, who raises his own geoducks in a separate venture from the Taylors, has been talking a lot about the bizarre bivalve lately as the global press discovers Washington state’s King of Clams. (Some of his descriptions are not suitable for family publications.)

“It’s eaten sashimi style, raw and sliced and it has a cucumber texture with a crunch,” says Dewey, “and it’s not particularly fishy.” It’s often sautéed, made into chowder or blanched in a broth, he says.

Brothers Paul (left) and Bill Taylor check on manila clams moving through a conveyor chute as an employee gets ready to net the day's crop at Samish Bay Farm near Bow.
Brothers Paul (left) and Bill Taylor check on manila clams moving through a conveyor chute as an employee gets ready to net the day’s crop.

Tractors in the tidewaters

The Taylors bought the property tidal rights to its Samish Bay operation in 1991 and converted the old farmstead into a clamming community of sorts. (Shigoku oysters are also grown here on rafts while geoducks thrive in several locations.) Some 40 people are involved in the seeding, harvesting, transferring and selling of the net loads of clams that are scooped up by at low tide. To get to the center of the clam farm requires proper timing and a boat — leaving the shore while there’s enough water for the boat, then anchoring and jumping out when the water is not above hip-wader high. The underside of the tide reveals rows and rows of metal netting that’s covering a crop of the small popular manila clams. As the tide continues receding, what was once a bay of water is now a mudflat pattern of green and gray that seems to extend into the horizon and beyond.

“When we grow the clams, we have to put a net over the top of them. We plant little tiny seeds through the net. In the spring, the net gets marine algae growing all over it so we sweep off the algae,” Bill Taylor explains, trudging through the rows. Using what? A street sweeper, of course, attached to the end of a tractor. The Taylors use tractors in aquaculture just as agricultural farmers do on land — for just about everything: Laying down four-feet wide nets in neat rows, sweeping the nets, and finally, harvesting the clams after about three years of incubating in the sand.

The one difference is these blue tractors are parked on a platform float, then driven down a ramp at low tide. A tractor and an ingenious harvesting tool also do the dirty work once performed by metal racks and human clam diggers.

As a team of Taylor employees work the tractor’s chute, guiding gliding white sandy clams into blue nets, Bill Taylor explains how they adopted a technique more common to tulip farmers down the road.

“We modified a machine used in Europe for harvesting tulip bulbs,” he says. “It creeps along the tidal flats raking up the clams, shaking the sand off of them and sending them to a bucket in the back.”

The method saves time, money and backs. “It can do the work of five to six people in half the time,” Dewey said. “The clams we had to still dig by hand so doing it this way is pretty unique. And seeding the clams makes the business much more predictable and we can inventory it better.”

What they can’t control is the natural rhythm of the ocean.

Every two weeks, there is a tidal cycle, so Samish Bay employees generally work 10 days on, four days off. They also only have a window of three to four hours out on the flats before their crop “fields” turn back into a bay for everyone’s use. Sometimes, that means hip-boot duty at 1 a.m. under moon light and head lamps.

Hatchery to harvesting 

Washington state is the largest producer of hatchery-reared and farmed shellfish in the United States. With more than 300 shellfish farms, it accounts for 25 percent of the nation’s total domestic production by weight, according to the Shellfish Institute, a non-profit organization that provides scientific and technical information to the shellfish industry, government and public.

Washington state shellfish farmers own their tidal territory, unlike most states where tidelands are leased. Because of a state law passed 120 years ago, nearly 70 percent of the intertidal areas of the Puget Sound are privately owned. To address the need for access to coastal waters for transportation, oyster and clam farming and other water-oriented industry, the 1895 Washington Legislature passed the Bush Act and the Callow Act, authorizing the sale of public tidelands to private individuals. The sales continued until 1971, when the state began leasing tidelands for up to 55 years.

Of the 11,000 acres of tidelands Taylor Shellfish Farms owns, about 20 to 30 percent is actively farmed. Finding locations best suited for various types of oysters and clams is a large part of the company’s success. For instance, Kumamoto oysters, known for their distinctive green tinge and sweetness, grow best in Chapman’s Cove near Shelton, where three freshwater creeks enrich a tidal plateau. Totten Inlet in the south Puget Sound area is best for Olympia, Pacific and Virginica oysters. It’s also where the Taylors harvest mussels clinging onto rafts. In Willapa Bay in southwestern Washington along the Pacific Ocean, where the Taylor’s own 6,300 acres, they seed and harvest 90 percent of their total oyster production. The wide expanses and tumbling tides of both Willapa and Samish Bays result in fatter, meatier oysters.

Samish Bay tidal flats at Taylor Shellfish Farms. The Taylor Shellfish Company owns 11,000 acres of tideline in Washington state and British Columbia.
Samish Bay tidal flats at Taylor Shellfish Farms. The Taylor Shellfish Company owns 11,000 acres of tideline in Washington state and British Columbia.

Protector or peril?

Over the years, Taylor Shellfish has battled many environmental threats, starting with the near extinction of the native Olympia oyster from over harvesting and declining water quality conditions. Once abundant in Willapa Bay and South Puget Sound, by the 1980s the Olympia oyster was all but shucked-out up and down the West Coast.

“By 1956, a pulp mill in Shelton had killed all oysters in the bay and that’s when we realized how important water quality is,” Bill Taylor said. “Then the shorelines were developed in the 1960s and human pollution became a problem.”

His father was the first to recognize the threat of human activity on the native oyster and filed the first environmental lawsuit ever in Washington state against the pulp-mill industry. Taylor Shellfish Farms is credited with helping in the restoration efforts of Olympia oyster populations in South Puget Sound and with the resurgence in their popularity.

While Bill Taylor enjoys the challenge of raising the ornery Olympia oysters that need a specific water temperature, plenty of plankton, and three or four years for best cultivation, he’s also in it for the taste. Of Olys — be they raw, shucked, smoked, sauteed — “there’s nothing better,” he says.

But Taylor Shellfish has also been criticized by environmental organizations and coastal communities concerned about the company’s growing footprint and its effect on tideland creatures.

In May, after an outcry from area chefs and customers, the company backed down from a plan to use a neurotoxin approved by the state called imidacloprid to kill native shrimp burrowing into oyster beds of Willapa Bay. Its geoduck production is also considered a shoreline eyesore because of the PCV pipes used to stabilize the giant clams; Dewey says the company is moving toward mesh netting. Taylor Shellfish is one of many companies applying to the state’s Pilot Geoduck Aquaculture Program for additional plots to plant immature geoduck seeds, a plan that’s receiving some criticism.

The company’s biggest threat arrived in the summer of 2009. Millions of oyster larvae suddenly died around Washington state hatcheries, dropping production by 80 percent and costing the industry an estimated $110 million. The cause? Ocean acidification, which occurs when oceans absorb carbon dioxide emissions.

“The oceans surface waters have become 30 percent more acid,” says Dewey, calling it the biggest threat to seafood around the globe. In 2013, the state allotted funds for ocean acidification research. Taylor Shellfish has since invested in $45,000 in sophisticated monitoring equipment to track water chemistry at its oyster larvae farms. If the water gets too acidic, sodium carbonate is automatically injected to restore pH balance.

Demands of a global business

Pollution, pests and press calls. These are just a few of the pressures facing Taylor Shellfish executives daily.

The company owns and operates the entire process of the shellfish they sell from hatchery to harvests to hardy servings of steaming clams. It just opened its third restaurant in Seattle in Pioneer Square adding to its Capitol Hill and Lower Queen Anne oyster bars.

With 500 employees in multiple locations around the state, business contracts around the country and world, and an annual revenue of $60 million, there’s a lot more to Taylor Shellfish Farms than is revealed at its quaint picturesque locale down a gravel road off Chuckanut Drive.

Or as Bill Taylor puts in the understated Taylor family way, the shellfish business “is a little more complicated that just digging for clams.”


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