About 2.5 million tiny Pacific oysters are growing in the new Willapa Bay Oyster Co. facility on the Shoalwater Bay Indian Reservation in Tokeland. When it gets up to full capacity, 5 million of them will be produced each season, to be sold to oyster growers across the region and, eventually, used to seed local beds that haven’t been managed for 15 years.
The venture is the result of an idea, smart local investing and some fortuitous connections made on the part of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe and Johnny Winokur, CEO of Willapa Bay Enterprises and the Shoalwater Bay Casino. Willapa Bay Enterprises is the business arm of the tribe.
“The operation came to be when I pointed out to our Willapa Bay Enterprise Board that our tribe owned 700-plus acres of oyster and clam beds that were not being used in Pacific County,” said Jamie Judkins, treasurer of the board. “We made our Tribal Council an offer and acquired full management ability over the beds. The original idea was to create a co-op for our tribal membership and lease some of the beds to tribal members who wanted to create a small business with them.”
Willapa Bay Enterprises was created in 2007. Its board meets at least once a month to discuss investment that will “create jobs and help our tribal members,” said Judkins, who also serves as the tribe’s assistant planner.
Shoalwater Bay Casino Chief Financial Officer Michael Rasmussen pitched the oyster idea to Winokur, who had been called in a few years earlier to turn around the fortunes of the casino, which was struggling financially at the time.
Once the plan for the oyster operation was hatched, a more or less chance meeting — Judkins describes it as “a serendipitous moment” — with Tom Madsen, who has been in the oyster industry managing his own beds for more than 35 years, met with Willapa Bay Enterprises to consult on the project.
“He decided he wanted to partner up” on the venture, said Winokur.
“He had the knowledge and the equipment, we had the land and the investment funds,” said Judkins. “We began asking questions about supplying our own oyster seed and it became more and more feasible. Tom moved in.”
The Shoalwater Bay Tribe supplied the land for the operation, a strip on the water behind the Chevron station at the intersection of State Route 105 and Tokeland Road, directly south of the casino. As for the investment, Winokur said only that it was “six figures” to get the oyster growing facility up and running.
Benefits to the Tribe
“Our tribe benefits in so many ways,” said Judkins. “First, it’s in our mission to ‘become self-sufficient and provide for the spiritual, social, economic, and health of tribal members …’ This is my focus as the assistant planner for our tribe.”
Judkins said the oyster operation has sustainable economic benefits and social benefits as well.
“Providing oyster seed saves and even earns us money commercially, creating a more diverse enterprise income portfolio, and it supports our tribal members who want to participate in this traditional way of sustaining our people,” said Judkins.
The Willapa Bay Enterprises board is looking for interested parties to approach the tribe to enter lease agreements for oyster beds on tribal-controlled land, said Judkins.
“It will create use of beds that have not been managed since 2004 and give us the opportunity to participate in the battle against invasive biotic (living and once-living organisms in the ecosystem) and changing abiotic (water quality, temperature and other non-living) factors,” said Judkins.
Madsen said the water quality of tribal land is better than that faced in other oyster producing areas on the Olympic Peninsula, opening the door to tap a resource that hasn’t been actively pursued for many years. Oysters filter an incredible amount of water, which would aid the water quality not just on Tribal beaches but others around the Olympic Peninsula that may not have the quality of water enjoyed by the tribe.
“Beyond our tribe, this benefits small oyster growers who need a good, healthy supply of oyster seed to grow. More oysters growing in Willapa Bay means our clean water becomes even more clean,” said Judkins. “As a member of our Pacific County Economic Development Council Board, I also love to engage in our neighboring communities and support partnerships that will move us forward, together.”
How to grow an oyster
The facility produces oyster seed: juvenile oysters that are shipped to growers who raise them to the stage at which they are ready to harvest. The company starts with oyster larvae, sourced from established beds in Quilcene, Whiskey Ridge, Oregon, and, in the near future, a hatchery in Kona, Hawaii. The larvae itself makes up a minimal investment in the overall operation, with 50,000 of them for around $500, according to Madsen.
Getting oysters to grow from larvae to seed takes knowledge, a little help from Mother Nature, and a skilled hand. Kenny Lewis fit the bill and was brought on as oyster manager. He’s been in the business since he was in his teens, said Winokur.
The larvae, said Madsen, are set on microculture, “and that results in a single oyster seed.”
Lewis said the “microculture” is finely ground oyster shell. The larvae set on the ground oyster shells and begin to develop. They are bathed in carefully monitored sea water, recycled through PVC pipes into the buckets lined up in tubs inside the facility.
Of course, oysters have to eat to thrive, and the Willapa Bay Oyster Company’s maturing crop feeds on pure strains of algae. Algae starts begin in small flasks grown in aseptic conditions — free of contamination by bacteria, viruses and such — then moved on to intermediate 5-gallon vessels, then transferred to the greenhouse tanks ranging from 50 to 150 gallons.
“The algae grows in dense culture in saltwater, and that dense culture of algae is added to the system that has the oysters growing in it,” said Madsen. As the algae is consumed by the oysters the water is drained down, up to 20 percent each day, and replaced with more sea water and the algae culture. The water/feed system is cleaned daily, part of Lewis’ routine.
As the oysters mature they are moved to tanks outside the facility, until they are the proper size for distribution. The industry standard for survivability from larvae to seed is about 80 percent, said Madsen.
“They are grown in various systems up to a size of ¾ of an inch,” said Madsen. “And then they will be sold or used by the tribal cooperative.”
The value of the seed produced is, basically, based on its size.
“The larger it is the more valuable it is,” said Madsen. “Typically, the seed that is a half inch or more in length, where it can sit on a half-inch screen, the price of that is more than $50 a pound. And then the smaller seed, down to around an eighth of an inch, is probably somewhere around $15 a pound.”
As for which is more profitable, the larger or smaller seed, that is dependent on the needs of the consumers, the oyster growers who want it to bolster their own beds.
“It’s all kind of a linear value; the bigger seed takes longer to grow and is worth more, the smaller seed is kicked out faster and is worth less. Overall they generate about the same amount of revenue,” said Madsen.
The growing season is typically April to September and is extremely weather-dependent, said Madsen. Each set of oysters takes 6-8 weeks to mature to selling size. Consider a capacity of 5 million at a time, the Willapa Bay Oyster Company will be shipping out 15 million each season when running at full tilt.
It’s all Pacific oysters now, but the facility has also started growing mussel seed, said Madsen.
“We’ve got a separate system we’ve got now to grow mussel seed for a mussel grower,” he said, calling it a “similar process” to growing oyster seed.
There are also plans to start producing Kumamoto oysters, said Madsen, and potentially Olympia oysters, a favorite among oyster connoisseurs that is making a comeback as growers work to bolster their numbers. There could also be Manila clams in the company’s future, said Madsen.