Can 'farming' restore bay oyster business? Meet the Frank Perdue of aquaculture

October 24, 1993|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,Staff Writer

OYSTERVILLE, Wash. -- Gathering dust in the rafters of a seafood cannery, the oyster tongs are identical to those still used by watermen a continent away on the Chesapeake Bay.

Here on Willapa Bay, which produces a sixth of the nation's oysters from acreage the size of East Baltimore, such primitive implements belong in a museum.

And in Seattle, University of Washington scientist Kenneth K. Chew, a global authority on shellfish, says the Chesapeake oyster's place in overall production now amounts to "spit in the ocean."

Virtually the rest of the world has moved on to growing various strains of a disease-resistant Japanese oyster, Dr. Chew says.

He didn't mean to be unkind, but it is hard for a Marylander not to feel like a Third World delegate when comparing notes with the Pacific Northwest, which leads the world in modern oyster-farming techniques.

Nor is one left with any illusions about the task facing Maryland, which last week announced a plan to restore the disease-wracked Chesapeake oyster and preserve the bay's independent watermen -- while at the same time trying to establish modern aquaculture.

"I've got a lot of respect for those Chesapeake tongers, but I travel to every place in the world that grows oysters commercially, and everywhere it seems like the wild harvest had to go before aquaculture really got started," says Lee J. Wiegardt, one of Washington state's most progressive oyster farmers.

Mr. Wiegardt's Jolly Roger Seafoods in Nahcotta, a few miles down the bay from Oysterville, owns 2,200 acres of Willapa Bay bottom. That would be a legal impossibility in Maryland, where the concept of public fisheries precludes even private leases on the best oyster beds.

From his oyster farm, and mostly from its best 250 acres for oyster growth, Mr. Wiegardt probably will outproduce the entire Maryland and Virginia Chesapeake this year.

Disease and the legacy of over-harvesting and mismanagement promise a Chesapeake harvest likely to be less than the 100,000 or so bushels a year shipped by Jolly Roger. The millions of bushels that used to be taken almost as a birthright from the Chesapeake are only a memory now.

Mr. Wiegardt's intensively managed farm and use of high-tech oyster hatcheries puts him closer to Frank Perdue than to a Chesapeake waterman. But he is a far cry from the corporate, Exxon-scale presence watermen in Maryland fear would inevitably control a privatized oyster industry.

His grandfather, Heinrick Johann Wiegardt, began shipping oysters from Willapa Bay to San Francisco in 1874. His son, Fritz, 41, is the fourth generation of Wiegardts to farm oysters, and Fritz's son "wants to get into the business so bad we can hardly keep him in college," Lee Wiegardt says.

His fellow grower and friend down the street, Harry Bendicksen, goes back nearly as far. The two, along with a few other farms, produce the bulk of the bay's half a million or so bushels of oysters each year.

But there are probably a hundred others growing oysters here, many owning small acreages and producing a few thousand bushels a year. Mr. Wiegardt, who says he has lost money in nine of the last 21 years, thinks oystering has too many ups and downs, and too much local involvement, to appeal to big corporations.

The heart of Jolly Roger, a nondescript jumble of buildings on the Willapa waterfront, parking lot crunchy with shell, has much the look and ambience of Chesapeake oyster houses at Tilghman Island and Crisfield.

Inside, a dozen or so shuckers -- called "openers" here -- divest the bivalves of their plump meats. Ironically, every oyster Mr. Wiegardt can spare right now is headed for Japan. This is as odd as if Maryland's Eastern Shore were forced to import chickens.

Japan and South Korea together usually harvest several times the entire oyster production of the United States. But this year's crop along 1,500 miles of coastline in the two Asian countries was an unprecedented wipeout, caused by a mysterious failure of free-floating larval oysters to "set," or attach to a hard surface and begin growing.

This natural process is precisely where U.S. oystermen on the West Coast have revolutionized the industry, pioneering artificial hatchery and setting techniques that insulate their companies from dependence on the vagaries of nature.

The revolution is apparent in a warm, brightly lighted building filled with bubbling tanks, where a Wiegardt biologist is growing algae. When she deems the brew ready for consumption, she introduces the microscopic larvae of male and female oysters that have just been induced to spawn in a nearby bucket.

For two to three weeks, the babies are monitored, measured, sorted and fed -- tended like a prize crop until the day they exhibit an "eye," a pinpoint black dot.

This means they are close to extending their tiny foot, for feeling out an oyster shell or other suitable surface on which to glue themselves for the rest of their lives.

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