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News / Life / Clark County Life

Head to Willapa Bay fresh for oysters

Nahcotta Tidelands offer about 10 acres of osyter habitat

By Terry Otto, Columbian freelance outdoors writer
Published: April 6, 2024, 6:08am
4 Photos
Oyster gatherers work the flats out in the Nahcotta Tidelands in Willapa Bay. The tidelands are managed by the WDFW, and the public may harvest oysters for their own use year-round.
Oyster gatherers work the flats out in the Nahcotta Tidelands in Willapa Bay. The tidelands are managed by the WDFW, and the public may harvest oysters for their own use year-round. (Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) Photo Gallery

Washington’s Willapa Bay is tucked behind Long Beach, and the shallow bay is a well-known producer of oysters.

Most are grown on oyster farms, but for those people that love fresh oysters, there is a public tideland where there are oysters available for recreational harvest.

The Nahcotta Tidelands is an interpretive site, a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife field station, and a great place for the public to harvest oysters during low tides. A Washington shell fish/seaweed license, or a combination license is all that is required to enjoy a day of harvesting oysters from the tidelands.

Zach Forster, a WDFW coastal shellfish biologist, said all the oysters harvested here are the Pacific Oyster, a variety he said was brought in during the early part of the last century, after the bay’s native oysters were over harvested, and the first attempt at repopulating the bay with an alternative oyster failed.

“They (Pacific Oyster) naturalized, and all our oysters out here in the bay are now self-recruiting,” Forster said. “That’s why when you harvest out there you are required to put the shell back where you found it. The shell is the preferred substrate that the oyster larvae use to settle on.”

Forster reports that Willapa Bay is unlike other Washington coastal bays.

“Other bays along the coast have Pacifics in them but they just are not successful. Willapa Bay is unique, because it has got a longer water retention time, which allows the oysters to spawn and the larvae is retained and allowed to settle out in the bay.”

He said in the other bays the larvae get flushed out into the ocean and never have a proper place to settle out.

Harvesting the oysters is fairly simple. You will need a one-foot tide or lower. From the parking lot, a short walk down the path leads to the tidelands. The oysters will be spread out across the mud flat, and they will be growing on the shells from the former harvests. If the oysters were in the mud they would suffocate.

“Most of them are not stuck to rocks or anything,” Forster said. “They are fixed to oyster shells. You will find that some of them are in clusters, and you want to break apart the clusters to get the best sized oysters.”

He explains that on a four-inch shell there might be a couple smaller ones growing with larger oysters. It is important to leave those little ones on the shell, so they can grow to harvest size in a couple years.

A pair of mud boots is a good idea, and though you do not need waders, many harvesters do wear them.

“It’s pretty easy to get around out there,” said Forster, “but don’t go barefoot, the shells are sharp.”

Harvesters are warned that if they stray too far from the mud flat, they could find themselves in difficult areas. To the south is a mud-filled slough that Forster describes as “impossible to get through.” To the north is an area of deeper mud and a private clam farm.

Most of the oysters are straight out in front of the interpretive site. There is about 10 acres of tidelands where the oysters can be found.

“The oysters are basically straight out in front of our station” Forster added.

The busiest times are after a good razor clam tide. The tide in the bay runs about an hour behind the tides on Long Beach. Many clammers fill their limits on the beach and then move over to the tidelands to harvest oysters.

Forster said the area might see about 50 people or so during razor clam season digs.

After the clamming season closes, there might be a dozen people out on the flats searching for oysters on the summer weekends with good tides.

Unlike in Puget Sound, where the oysters may be unsafe during the summer, there are no such issues in Willapa Bay. Still, harvesters are cautioned to always check the Washington State shellfish health website before heading out.

Forster advises that harvesters bring a good glove to hold the oysters while shucking them, to avoid cuts from sharp-edged shells. A good oyster knife is also a must. A five-gallon bucket can be used as a seat for shucking, and some people bring a board to place on their lap for an easier time of it.

All oysters harvested must be shucked, and the shells left where the oysters were found. Do not bring them up the beach to shuck them. Each harvester must keep his oysters in a separate container.

The minimum size is 2½ inches measured across the longest distance of the shell. The daily limit is 18. Oysters consumed on the beach count toward a limit.

There is an interpretive gondola on site where the public can learn about the ecology of the bay, and the field station offers staff that can answer questions. The season is open year-round.

For oyster lovers, the allure of fresh-from-the-bay oysters may be hard to resist. However, if you prefer them grilled in the shell, or served on a half shell, there are plenty of outlets along the bay where you can find fresh, commercially grown oysters still in the shell.

Check the Washington Shellfish Safety Map or call the Biotoxin Hotline (1-800-562-5632) to get the most up-to-date shellfish closure information before harvesting.

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Columbian freelance outdoors writer