Spring is the optimum time to gather oysters on Puget Sound and Hood Canal beaches
Recreational oyster harvesters are reminded that the only place where it is permissible to shuck oysters is on the beach where they were taken
Spring is finally blooming, and this is a time when shellfish gatherers can easily venture out on Puget Sound and Hood Canal public tidelands to gather oysters where most populations remain relatively stable.
“You can beat the heat and avoid crowds by harvesting oysters during the early spring daylight low tides,” said Camille Speck, the WDFW Puget Sound intertidal shellfish manager. “On many beaches, oysters are in rich, prime condition during the colder months before warmer waters encourage them to use energy resources to spawn.”
Early spring offers excellent oyster gathering opportunities when the time of the low tide switches back to daylight hours. For optimal low tides, go to the annual WDFW best harvesting tide chart. The interactive Washington shellfish safety map is one-stop-shop to find information about which beaches seasons are open for harvest (WDFW regulations) and current DOH Health status. Beaches are represented on the map with colored squiggles. Clicking on a squiggle provides up-to-date information on the seasons and DOH water quality status, plus links back to WDFW’s beach-specific webpages where you can find information such as directions to the beach, harvest details and available amenities at the site. You can also find shellfish harvesting information on the Washington Department of Health (WDOH) webpage.
Keep in mind when heading to a beach that each site is different, with some being sandy, muddy, or rocky. Oysters do not reliably spawn or set on beaches across the entire Puget Sound basin and not all public beaches provide proper habitat for oysters to settle and grow. Predominantly muddy beaches aren’t ideal habitat for oysters and often do not host populations of oysters.
Other factors determining where oyster beds can thrive are the “substrate” or surface they live on to grow and receive nourishment, tidal influences and where oysters are located on a particular beach. Some public beaches outside of Hood Canal are planted with Pacific oysters to provide harvest opportunity. Visiting the individual beach websites found using this WDFW search webpage will provide information about oyster availability.
Here is a list of beaches for oyster gathering:
· Twanoh State Park just north of Union in Hood Canal turns 100 years old in 2023 and is excellent for oysters with beds on both sides of the boat ramp and open year-round for oysters. The park offers bathrooms, camping and day-use facilities.
· A good early-season location is North Bay in Case Inlet, which has an enhanced oyster bed and is open from March 1 through April 30 and Sept. 1 through Oct. 15 for day-use harvesting only. Restroom facilities are available in the paved parking area. Parking is extremely limited in the lot, and it is illegal to park along the shoulder of the road. A nearby alternative is Oakland Bay Tidelands, located north of Shelton off Highway 3, open year-round for oysters and clams. Low tide timing at Oakland Bay is later than North Bay, making it an excellent alternative if the North Bay parking lot is full. Harvesters are reminded not to park on the side of the road, and to find another beach if the parking lot is full.
· Eagle Creek located three miles north of Lilliwaup in Hood Canal off Highway 101 is open year-round for excellent oyster gathering. Parking is extremely limited to a small area and shoulder parking is allowed off Highway 101. A short, steep trail leads down to the beach from the highway shoulder. There are no restrooms. Harvesters are reminded not to park on private land on the opposite side of the highway.
· Lilliwaup State Park Tidelands in Hood Canal off Highway 101 is open year-round for oysters and clams. A set of metal stairs leads down to the tidelands from a large dirt turnout just north of Lilliwaup Bay.
· Triton Cove Tidelands located off Highway 101 in Hood Canal is an excellent year-round oyster gathering beach. A defunct launching ramp from the dirt parking lot leads directly to the oyster bed, making this an excellent choice for people with limited mobility. A bathroom is available ¼ mile south at Triton Cove State Park boat launch.
· West Dewatto (DNR-44A) located along the east shore of Hood Canal is open year-round for oysters. Parking is limited to the shoulder of the road and access is a scramble down a short, rocky bank. There are no restrooms. Be sure to learn about property boundaries on the WDFW West Dewatto beach webpage before you go.
· Potlatch State Park/DNR, located north of Shelton on Highway 101 is open for oyster and clam harvest from April 1 through May 31. The tide flats off the Highway 101 pull-out host an abundant bed of prime single oysters. Parking is not allowed at the pull-out. Harvesters must park in the state park day-use area and walk the narrow strip of beach along Highway 101 to where the broad tide flats start as the shoreline veers east. This broad flat is also the best area to dig for Manila clams.
· Another productive oyster beach open year-round is Dosewallips State Park located south of Brinnon off Highway 101. A flat, graveled trail leads to the expansive oyster beds. This beach is accessible to all-terrain wheelchairs.
· The Point Whitney Tidelands located off Highway 101 is an oyster location (open Jan. 1 through June 30) but the average size is small, and harvesters are reminded that there is a 2 ½ inch minimum size. The highest oyster abundance is around the point at the south end of the outer tidelands.
· Sequim Bay State Park located about four miles east of Sequim on Highway 101 is open for oysters with a projected closure date of April 15. You can find good numbers of oysters in the WDFW oyster enhancement plots (see beach photo for oyster plots). The most recent oyster plants occurred south of the boat ramp and these plants are expected to reach legal size in the next one to three years.
· Many more sites, including some less popular, lesser-known, and quiet boat access-only beaches can be found by browsing the WDFW beach pages.
Be sure to visit the Washington shellfish safety map on the same day you plan to harvest shellfish. It has an easy to navigate search tool to locate the precise beach you want to view and to check for WDFW harvesting seasons. Each beach linked on the interactive map provides additional information. It is critical to check the shellfish safety map on the date of harvest because water quality conditions can change quickly.
If you can’t get out to a beach to harvest them on your own, there are numerous places to buy fresh local oysters, including from retailers participating in Local Catch, a network of supported fisheries and small-scale harvesters.
Don’t duck the oyster shucking rule
A rule sometimes overlooked by shellfish gatherers is that all oysters must be shucked on the beach with the shells left at the same approximate tide height where they were gathered on the beach of origin. The rule implemented by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) says it is illegal to remove unshelled oysters and relic shells from the beach. Violators of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 220–330–010 could face a citation.
There are several reasons for the shucking rule:
Oysters shucked on the beach help prevent the transfer of invasive shellfish pests and diseases from one location to another.
Moving shells from beaches that are positive for Japanese oyster drill — an aquatic invasive species — can inadvertently spread these “hitchhikers” to other uninfected beaches. This tiny snail predator, accidentally brought from eastern Asia in the 1920s, can survive long periods of time out of the water. Drill eggs laid on oyster shells may not be obvious to the untrained eye and are an easy way to accidentally spread this harmful species.
Drills feed on a range of shellfish, including Pacific and Olympia oysters, Manila clams, native littleneck clams, mussels, and barnacles. They are especially fond of juvenile or “spat” oysters, have become a nuisance for shellfish growers, and are a major factor limiting Olympia oyster recovery in some areas of Puget Sound. Oyster drills are only one example of harmful pests that can hitchhike with oyster shells. Moving oyster shells from one beach to another, or from another region (such as those purchased at a seafood market) can also spread disease.
It is illegal to discard oyster shells from your seafood plate or from the seafood market on Washington beaches or into state waters; it is also illegal to temporarily store live oysters in state waters or on Washington beaches without a permit from WDFW. These measures are intended to keep our shellfish safe from pests and diseases, and more information on how you can help can be found here on the WDFW’s “Safeguard Our Shellfish” webpage.
Secondly, oyster shells provide the optimal growing substrate and habitat for young Pacific and native Olympia oysters. Discarded oyster shells play an important role in efforts to re-establish native Olympia oysters on beaches. This is especially vital in southern stretches of Puget Sound where their natural setting surface was wiped out years ago by overharvest and habitat loss.
Another factor that goes unnoticed by the naked eye is tiny oyster seedlings attach themselves to larger shells. Therefore, by removing oyster shells, shellfish gatherers are also likely wiping out young oysters which would otherwise have remained on the beach to grow to mature size, the next generation of harvestable oysters. Shells also provide habitat to a variety of other native species.
The daily limit for recreational harvesters is 18 oysters measuring at least 2½ inches across the longest part of the shell. The size limit is designed to protect Olympia oysters, which generally measure less than 2½ inches. Oysters eaten on the beach count toward the daily limit.
How to shuck oysters
Shucking an oyster can seem intimidating, but it is rather simple and safe once you figure it out, whether you do it on the beach or practicing with oysters bought from a seafood market.
The necessary tools are simply a pair of food grade cut-resistant gloves, a 3.5-inch stainless steel oyster knife and several dish or rag towels. At home you’ll also need a thick plastic cutting board.
To shuck an oyster, first identify the top (“lid”) and the bottom (“cup”) shells. The flatter shell is the lid. These two shells (“valves”) are held together with a strong adductor muscle that attaches to both shells. Adductor muscle strength increases with shell size. With the oyster facing flat side up, the simplest and easiest way to open them is through the hinge of the oyster, located at the pointed part where the two halves of the shell meet. Insert the knife in the keyhole at the hinge point and twist until the shells slightly pop apart. Then, slide your knife along the inside of the top/lid shell to sever the adductor muscle from the top/lid shell. Peel back the top/lid and use the knife to cut the adductor muscle free from the bottom/cup shell. The hinge-shuck method is easier with smaller oysters. For larger oysters, you can also open the shell by slipping the knife between the side of the top/lid and the bottom/cup to sever the adductor muscle. With the flat side up and the hinge placed at 6 o’clock, wrap the towel around the oyster, brace against a hard surface, and insert the blade tip between the top and bottom shell at about 3 o’clock. Twist/wiggle the blade to about 90 degrees to pop the shells open. Then carefully slide your knife along the inside of the top/lid shell to separate the adductor muscle from the shell. Peel back the top/lid and run the blade under the adductor muscle where it attaches to the bottom/cup shell. Slide the meat in a jar or plastic tub and keep it on ice in a cooler for the trip home. Some people like to pour off some of the fluid from inside the oyster into their shucking container and then use this fluid to swish off any shell fragments when they return home and prepare the oysters for cooking.
Historical oyster tidbits
Human consumption of oysters across marine coastal areas of the United States dates back more than 165,000 years. Archaeological, and modern biological data have even recorded oysters as far back as when dinosaurs roamed the planet. Pacific Northwest tribal cultures have depended on shellfish like oysters and clams as an important mainstay of their diet for eons.
Pioneers to the West Coast began actively cultivating and harvesting native Olympia oysters from San Francisco Bay in the 1800s. Commercial oyster harvesting soon expanded north to Oregon and Washington’s Willapa Bay, Puget Sound and Hood Canal.
Native Olympia oyster production peaked in the late 1800s and early 1900s when production in the United States reached 160 million pounds annually, but success was short-lived due to overharvesting, pollution from pulp mills, upland logging practices, and other challenges. The removal of massive amounts of oyster shell, the very habitat for the oysters themselves, was critical in the decline of our native oyster.
With their decline the commercial oyster industry looked for ways to sustain oysters. During this time, Pacific oysters from Japan were introduced in the early 1900s by early Japanese American first-generation “Issei” immigrants. These oysters eventually thrived in the 1930s at places like Willapa Bay off the southern coast and Hood Canal. The prime natural setting and shellfish farms eventually lead to a resurgence in oyster cultivation by the 1970s.
Like terroir, which reflects the unique growing conditions where wine and dairy products are produced, oysters are said to reflect the conditions of where they grow with their “merroir.” Not all oysters are created equal, and each has their own unique flavor, mouthfeel, and shape. Much depends on the environment in which they grow, for example differences in the salinity of water can vary from area-to-area and various mariculture techniques produce different results on commercial oyster farms.
Oysters are filter feeders, and a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water daily. They help remove excess nitrogen from waters by incorporating it into their shells and tissue as they grow. Oyster reefs add complexity and structure to intertidal zones and provide important habitat for many species that dwell in the nearshore. Oyster reefs have been shown to serve as a shoreline defense against storm surges.
There are more than 150 varieties of cultivated oysters harvested and sold in North America, yet they comprise a total of five species of oysters and only two species — Olympia and Pacific oysters — spawn naturally on Puget Sound and Hood Canal beaches.
The Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida), native to Washington, is small in size, measuring about 1 to 2 ½ inches in length. Their shell has a slight metallic purple, gray-green, pearl color and is much thinner that other varieties of oysters. The shells are often less convoluted along the growing edge compared to Pacific oysters and they do not bond together as firmly to form clusters like the Pacific oyster. On public beaches, statewide rules require an oyster to be at least 2 ½ inches across the longest part of the shell to legally harvest recreationally. This rule was enacted to help protect native Olympia oysters, which are currently managed for recovery on public lands in Washington state and rarely reach legal harvestable size.
The Pacific oyster (Magallana [Crassostrea] gigas), native to Japan and brought to Washington in the early 1900s, is now the most important commercial oysters along the West Coast. Pacific oysters are generally oblong-shaped with an irregular, wavy shell edge. They can measure up to 12 inches long and their shells are chalky white or grey in color, sometimes with purple to black streaks. Pacific oysters provide recreational harvesting opportunity on public tidelands.
Other oysters that are cultivated on privately owned farms on Puget Sound and Hood Canal beaches are Eastern (Crassostrea virginica) and Kumamoto (Magallana sikamea) oysters. These oyster varieties are generally only available for commercial sale and are not expected to be found on public beaches.