|State closures of more than 20 oyster beds because of a bacterial outbreak have had a big impact on businesses like the Taylor Shellfish Farm off Chuckanut Drive, said Taylor’s Samish Bay manager, Irene Fadden.|
Just before the tightest hairpin curve in the middle of Chuckanut Drive, a driveway dips beneath the Oyster Creek Inn restaurant and leads to the Taylor Shellfish Farm on Samish Bay.
On a recent late summer afternoon, a lone customer in a wide-brimmed brown hat pulls up in an SUV. He enters the retail store, and leans over to squint at a purple mesh bag of clams.
The dimming sun glints off the water as a generator hums, resonating a feeling of desertion, or at least placidity.
Unfortunately, the farm doesn’t have many of its Pacific oysters on hand to sell to the customer, due to a widespread outbreak of the vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria that has closed 20 oyster-growing areas in the state, affecting 147 farms, including Taylor’s Samish Bay beds.
Irene Fadden, manager of the farm that is owned by the largest producer of farmed shellfish on the West Coast, looks out her office window at the sparkling million-dollar view.
“This is typically our biggest month for oyster sales because it’s summertime and people are barbecuing; (the outbreak) is definitely affecting our morale,” said Fadden, who has worked at the farm for 19 years.
The Oyster Business
Pacific oysters, whose seeds are native to Japan, were first grown in the U.S. at the Samish Bay farm in 1921, Fadden said. The farm, then owned by the Steele family under the name Rock Point Oyster Co., was the first certified oyster farm in Washington state, she said.
The Steeles owned the farm until 1991, when they sold it to Taylor Shellfish Farms, a company with its own long tradition of oyster farming and harvesting in the Puget Sound.
The Taylor family has been in the oyster business since 1890, and is currently the largest producer of farmed shellfish on the West Coast, with nine farms in Washington and Hawaii.
The Samish Bay farm produces Pacific oysters and clams, including Manilas and the prized geoducks.
Oysters reproduce by spawning in the wild and in hatcheries. Taylor collects larvae at various hatcheries around the sound and sends them to farms such as Samish Bay, Fadden said.
Farmers spread the larvae, called spat, over beds of already-shucked oyster shells in temperature-controlled water tanks where the larvae attach to the shells. After four to 10 days, these shells are spread over the 1,700-acres of Taylor-owned tide flats around Samish Bay.
The oysters grow in these beds for two to four years before crews harvest them during early-morning low tides, and load them onto a truck to be shipped to Taylor’s facility in Shelton. There the oysters are shucked and sold in local, national and international wholesale markets, Fadden said. A small portion is sent back to the Samish Bay farm to sell in their retail store, along with the clams.
It’s during their tenure in the beds when the vibrio bacteria can grow rapidly in the oysters during warm months, due to a rise in temperature.
The bacteria causes vibriosis, a gastrointestinal disorder with a low mortality rate, said Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms. The bacteria affects all shellfish, but only causes the illness when those shellfish aren’t cooked — and since oysters are the only shellfish that consumers traditionally eat raw, it has born the brunt of the warnings and closures.
The Washington State Department of Health received 113 reported cases of vibriosis this summer, according to Jessie DeLoach, spokesman for the DOH.
Two of those cases were traced to the Samish Bay farm, Fadden said.
The DOH also released a warning to consumers not to eat raw oysters.
In addition to the vibriosis outbreak, the DOH has warned against red tide this summer in parts of Puget Sound, which causes fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP. This biotoxin is usually far more common than vibriosis cases, but no cases of PSP have been reported, nor has it caused any commercial closures — only recreational ones. But together with the vibriosis outbreak, shellfish farms across the state have been rocked by an unprecedented blow to the market. For these farms, it’s been a tumultuous summer.
Almost all of Taylor’s growing areas have been shut down, except for its Willapa Bay location on the Washington coast, Dewey said.
“It’s definitely diminished our market,” Dewey said. “Demand has dropped because of public concern and, more recently with the closures. It has diminished our supply.”
In addition to the state’s public outreach on the issue, the Food and Drug Administration’s national warning indirectly blanketed oysters and shellfish from the Puget Sound into one large area of concern.
“They did a great disservice to us,” Dewey said of the FDA’s national warning. “They damaged a lot of businesses and industry because of it.”
Dewey said Taylor Shellfish Farms has lost $150,000 per week since the end of July because of the outbreak.
The Samish Bay farm’s sales are off by 25 percent, he said.
“So much of the sound has been shut down,” Fadden said. “Usually we can get more product from our other areas to sell, but we haven’t been able to do that this summer.”
Along with the cut in revenue, the company has had to make employee cuts, as well. Dewey said he had to lay off 45 employees at the Shelton farm.
Fadden had to severely curtail her employees’ hours, a difficult task since most of her employees normally expect to work more hours during the summer, not less.
“Piled on top of each other, I can’t remember it in my 25 year history — a vibriosis closure to this extent,” Dewey said.
There was one major vibriosis outbreak in 1997 — the first in the industry — and then Texas had one the next year, but neither caused nearly as many closures as this summer’s, he said.
After the 1997 outbreak, the FDA’s National Shellfish Sanitation Program instituted state monitoring practices and testing protocols to avoid such an outbreak again, he said.
“Those fell through this time, obviously something is still broken,” Dewey said. “We’re going to have to go back and work with the FDA and figure out what it was.”
Some scientists have warned that this outbreak represents a symptom of global warming, he said, but Dewey isn’t quick to pronounce a cause other than unseasonably warm weather this summer.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average temperature in the Pacific Northwest in July was 70.2 degrees. This was 4.1 degrees warmer than the 1901 to 2000 average — the fifth- warmest July in 112 years, according to NOAA.
“Seems like people are always grasping something to blame global warming on. This summer was particularly warm,” he said. “But certainly these types of problems will continue to get worse with a warming planet.”
Both Dewey and Fadden expect the DOH to open up most of the region’s farms by the middle of September, and then their next challenge will be winning back customers turned off from shellfish by all of the negative publicity.
“It will be hardest when the bay reopens again. By that time we’re slower anyway,” she said. “It’ll be a double whammy.”
But Dewey is trying to remain optimistic.
“It’s going to be a slow process to regain consumer confidence,” Dewey said. “Nationally, consumers across the U.S. have been scared away from the Northwest. But we’re confident we’ll get up and running again.”