Oregon’s Native Olympia Oyster

September 10, 2015 (Updated May 17, 2016)
Dick Vander Schaaf monitors the health of young Olympia Oysters. (Photo credit: Stephen Anderson/TNC)

Off the beaten path, just south of Oceanside, lives Netarts Bay. Spanning seven miles of Oregon coastline, Netarts offers visitors stunning views of both the ocean and the wild coastal rainforest. There are adventures available for all interests here, from hiking and boating, to crab fishing and clam digging.

Access to local cuisine is a point of pride for Oregon: hazelnuts and marionberries from the Willamette Valley, wine from the Columbia Gorge, and fresh oysters from Netarts Bay are all readily available.

While fresh oysters are readily available in Netarts, native oysters are hard to come by. That is why Travel Oregon invites visitors to help bring back native oysters to Oregon to improve the local ecosystem and provide for spectacular culinary experiences.

The Travel Oregon Forever Fund offers travelers the opportunity to support projects that preserve Oregon’s natural landscapes and cultural heritage. In the case of the Oregon Coast, visitors can support the revitalization of Oregon’s petite and flavorful native Olympia Oyster. Also known as the Oly, these oysters almost became extinct until about 10 years ago.

How did we almost lose this little local mollusk? According to Dick Vander Schaaf, longtime ecologist from The Nature Conservancy, it started during the gold rush era; it was common for miners in California to strike it rich, head to San Francisco, and indulge in a lifestyle ripe with “wine, women, and oysters.” However, once they cleared the Bay Area of all of its native oysters, prospectors started harvesting them from the the Oregon and Washington coast – all but destroying and diminishing the natural ecosystem that the native Olympia Oysters had established. Since the demise of the local oysters in the 19th century, oyster farmers have mainly farmed Japanese oysters in the region, like the Kumamoto and Pacific Oysters.

In 2005, Vander Schaaf overheard talk of a native Olympia Oyster restoration project running in Puget Sound. Intrigued by their efforts, and having a love of the Oregon Coast and its unique coastal communities, he had an idea to develop a similar project in Netarts Bay to help bring back Olys to Oregon’s natural and culinary landscape. After meeting around a kitchen table in Netarts with a professor from the University of Washington and a local oyster farmer, the plan for the Netarts Bay Oyster Restoration project was devised. 10 years later, the project has been a huge success.

Olympia Oysters are now thriving in the Netarts Bay Shellfish Reserve area to the point where commercial oyster farmers operating nearby are finding juvenile Olys growing on their stock. This commercial growth has made it more common to see the Oly on seafood menus along the coast and throughout the state.

Unlike their fellow mollusks, Olympia Oysters are internal brooders, naturally creating safe, protective habitats for their larvae to rear in. One of the unique revelations that has come out of the project’s research is that these oysters seem to have a natural resistance to the ocean acidification that is resulting from climate change. Many species of sea life are struggling to cope with the intensified levels of acidic seawater, but the native Olympia Oyster is thriving due to its unique protective reproduction model. Studies are underway to see if some of these self-breeding characteristics can be introduced to other oysters to help ensure their future viability.

Support from visitors through the Travel Oregon Forever Fund is aiding in this continued research and monitoring of the restoration of the Olympia Oyster in Netarts Bay. The future goal is to replicate its success in locations across the West Coast that once provided habitat for Olys.

The native Olympia Oyster has a unique story to tell in Oregon, and through the Travel Oregon Forever Fund, visitors are given the opportunity to be an integral part of that story. Be sure to check out restaurants such as EAT Oyster Bar and The Parish to get a taste of the native Oly, or go kayaking along Netarts Bay to get close to the oysters natural habitat.

About The

Lizzie Keenan
Lizzie Keenan is the Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge Regional Specialist. She spends her days working closely with destinations and tourism businesses around the world to help them bring their stories of sustainability to life. As a California native, Oregon is a new and exciting playground for her to explore. You can often find her running through the streets of Portland, stopping for “mandatory” breaks at her favorite food carts and coffee shops to fuel up.