By Eric Hyman
Don’t let the name fool you. Though most commonly referred to by the same name as the capital city on Washington state’s Puget Sound, Ostrea lurida, or the Olympia oyster, is native to the entire West Coast, from northern Baja up through British Columbia into southern Alaska. It also has the distinction of being the only oyster species native to our coast, as the two more commonly grown (and eaten) species, miyagis [Crassostrea gigas] and kumamotos [Crassostrea sikamea], are both Japanese imports brought to California in the early to mid 20th century.
Those in the know just call them Oly’s, and for quite some time, many believed they had disappeared for good in the wild, functionally extinct beyond the boutique farms cultivating them for a small handful of restaurants along the West Coast.
The original coastal dwellers of the Bay Area, who we now call Ohlone people, foraged and consumed the wild oysters for thousands of years, using the leftover shells as the literal building blocks of humongous shellmounds (often taller than a three-story building) that once blanketed coastal lands throughout the Bay Area, most notably where the Bay Street shopping center in Emeryville and the 4th Street parking lot in Berkeley currently reside. These mounds, also called middens, were used as burial sites and sacred meeting spaces.
In the mid 1800’s, the arrival of gold seekers during the California Gold Rush led to over harvesting of this keystone species. The slow-growing Oly struggled to keep up. Eventually the vast amounts of sediment the 49ers removed upstream and dumped back into the waterways smothered the already minimized populations of oyster beds. And in more recent decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with dredging portions of the San Francisco Bay to maintain shipping channels and keep the area free from hard debris. Unfortunately for the oysters, this includes any hard substrate (in particular other oyster shells) that Oly’s would ultimately use for propagation.
In addition to the Watershed Project’s artificial oyster reef balls at Point Pinole and other projects in the San Francisco Bay, Ostrea lurida restoration programs are currently underway in Liberty Bay, Washington and Netarts Bay, Oregon. Despite these efforts, Olympia oyster populations are still struggling to make a full comeback. According to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the National Shellfisheries Association, a major roadblock to an abundant return is two invasive oyster drill species: Atlantic and Japanese oyster drills [Urosalpinx cinerea and Ocinebrellus inornatus], both types of snail that attack the oysters in the exact way that their name alludes.
According to NOAA, large and healthy oyster reef habitats not only provide a safe home for a variety of other sea life, but also significantly improve water quality, as a single oyster filters up to fifty gallons of water per day while creating a protective barrier against storm surge and sea level rise.
From a culinary standpoint, please don’t let the size of an Oly fool you either. Though they are rarely larger than a half dollar, Olympia’s packs so much copper flavor that some people suggest the taste is like sucking on a penny. Other commonly described tasting notes include smokey, celery-like, and of course salty. In general, these diminutive bivalves pack significantly more flavor than the other, larger varietals.
Beyond the Point Pinole reef balls, you’ll often find Oly’s during low tide, clinging to rocks and other oyster shells, and perhaps laying on a bed of ice at your neighborhood oyster bar too.
Jacobsen, R. A Geography of Oysters, Bloomsbury USA, 2008
Jacobsen, R. The Living Shore, Bloomsbury USA, 2009
Smith, D. Oyster, Abrams New York, 2015