As we motor across the fast-ebbing tide on Netarts Bay, skipper Travis Oja says with a chuckle, “Lift your feet fellas, ’cause it gets really shallow really fast!
Oja is an oyster farmer who owns the Nevør Shellfish Farm at Netarts Bay. He inspects his crops — millions of Pacific Oysters — each day.
But there’s another oyster he really wants to see do well.
Olympias, nicknamed “Olys,” are Oregon’s only native oyster. Once thought extinct, the silver-dollar-sized shellfish are making a comeback thanks to Oja.
“I was interested in it because I thought it would be a sustainable crop that I wouldn’t have to plant every year, because unlike the larger Pacific Oyster, the Olympia’s spawn in the wild,” he says. “So, I could get a little pocket of them going and they will spawn every year and I can work off the patch that they build.”
For the past decade, Oja and Dick Vander Schaaf of Oregon’s Nature Conservancy have teamed up to bring the Olys back.
“The Olympias were harvested very heavily at turn of the century,” notes Vander Schaaf. “I mean the oyster industry was really the Olympia oyster industry!”
He’s right. Oregon’s Olys were shipped to California and back east by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1800’s. By the 1920’s, Olympia oysters had all but disappeared.
“Ten years ago, in order to restore the population back in Netarts Bay we located those few adult Oly oysters we could find,” says Vander Schaaf. ”We set that seed on Pacific oyster shells and brought those shells back out to the bay and deposited them.”
The effort to bring back a native oyster from near extinction caught the attention of the Travel Oregon Forever Fund and the foundation has provided financial support to save the species.
“They saw this as a very interesting story of what’s happening in this bay,” notes Vander Schaaf. “Plus, the fact that Oly’s are doing so well, they are beginning to show up on dining tables.”
Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, a Portland restaurant fixture since 1907, is one of a handful of seafood businesses offering the Olympia oyster to its customers.
Fourth generation owner Keoni Wachsmuth and his wife, Michelle, run the family business built around a century-old theme: “Excellent seafood at a reasonable price.”
Dan and Louis serves fresh Olympia oysters on the half shell or “Oysters Rockefeller” style, which are out of this world delicious. Michelle explains her recipe: “Oly oysters are fine for this recipe that includes shredded gruyere cheese, minced garlic, diced shallots and crumbled bacon. I place about half a teaspoon of this mixture on top of each fresh Oly oyster in the half shell and then into the oven at 400 degrees for just two minutes.”
Keoni look on as I try the first Oly. He smiles and says, “They pack a lot of flavor for a little oyster!”
In a word, I offer, “Delicious!” quickly adding, “With a capital D!”
“A lot of people come to Oregon for our Coast! It is one of our state’s strongest assets and I think they also come here for our food,” says fellow diner, Travel Oregon Destination Development Coordinator Andrew Grossman. It’s our responsibility as Travel Oregon to insure that these assets remain available to folks for years and also generations to come.”
Back on Netarts Bay, Oja and Vander Schaaf agree that the idea of bringing Olys back is a good one – not only good business but an important connection with Oregon’s past that is worth saving.