Oysters, The Ocean And The Environment

13 Feb

When you read English or Japanese history or visit places in those two islands,  the inbred sense of respect for history is almost a given.  Witness the recent discovery of Richard III’s bones and the plans to deter them in Leicester Cathedral in a ceremony befitting a King.  I bet the royal family will be represented, possibly en masse.

That’s an odd preamble to the subject of oysters, but I will try to clarify that introduction: history.  Yes, history and a story of struggle, prevailing against prejudice and, ultimately scientific confirmation that oyster culture actually improves the oceanic waters where they are nurtured.

The shores of the United States, Atlantic and Pacific, once boasted enormous oyster beds.  Mark Kurlinsky wrote extensively about the beds around New York Harbor and their decimation by the gluttony of nineteenth century New Yorkers in  The Big Oyster. The same is true about San Francisco Bay where the Ohlone Indians supped on them extensively, leaving enough shells for a street off the Ashby exit to Berkeley and Oakland to be called Shell Mound.

Following Katrina a New York Times article commented on the buffer role the oyster beds historically had served around the New York Harbor area;  similarly The San Francisco Chronicle carried an article about the loss of the native oyster.

You would think that such articles might have influenced  the Department of the Interior bureaucrats  or registered with  devoted environmentalists at The Sierra Club, factoring  thinking about  oyster culture s value as both enhancing the environment and small-scale business helping the economy.

But no, in October, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar came to the Point Reyes Recreational Area to weigh in on the lease extension of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. Senator Dianne Feinstein had found that the report recommending the removal of the oyster culture was flawed and probably hasty. Environmentalists want the Company’s removal, returning the land to its ‘pristine original condition.’  It looks as if they will get their wish – throwing  thirty Hispanics out of work and dumping over a century of history in the development of oyster culture despite racial prejudice and environmental challenges.

Edme Seton spent easily a dozen years while her children were at school delving into the compelling history of oyster cultivation.  When her children were grown, her research broadened to Japan where an Okinawan by the name of  Shinsho Miyagi immigrated to the Pacific Coast  to cultivate oysters first in British Columbia waters, then in Puget Sound and finally in the Bay Area with the aid of the Togasaki family.

Mrs. Seton learned that  in 1884 San Francisco businessmen had asked a local scientist working in Washington “how could they import oysters from Japan? And where was the best place to plant them?

“‘In the Estero,’ California Scientist Robert Edwards Carter Stearns advised. Oysters were big bucks in 1884.  For every dollar Americans paid for fish, they shelled out two for oysters.”  Parenthetically, have you ever seen the nearly all-day line outside The Oyster Depot on Polk Street?

Stearns advised the manner is which the oysters needed to be transported.  Mind you, by this time the Meiji Restoration has opened Japan to the outside world,  and steam ships had begun to sail between San Francisco and the ports of Japan.    Stearns wrote “and as a suggestion I should think that near the head of Drake’s Bay, on the coast north of San Francisco Bay[which you will see by the map contains a “bight” as the sailors call it] with a rocky or shelly bottom, would or might be a good place.

“After planting you will have to look out and protect the bed from the star fishes, periwinkles and whelks, which are as fond of oysters as the genus homo.”

Mrs. Seton proceeds to describe both legal changes in mining procedures and the birth of  Shinsho Miyagi  in 1884 who immigrated to the Pacific Northwest as a young man to engage in its promise of the fishing and oyster industries.

After being driven out of the Pacific Northwest by provincial and Washington state governments, Miyagi grew oysters in Tokyo Bay until the Kanto earthquake of 1923 drastically altered the shoreline and the oyster beds destroyed

Cooperating with the Imperial Fisheries College in Sendai Japan, Miyagi patented a a floating raft device in 1931 to hold oysters near the surface of deep water, raising them above sting rays but providing them with the best food supply.  The Drakes Bay Oyster Company uses Miyagi’s method to raise their oysters and ” U.S. Government shellfish inspectors have given the Estero the cleanest bill of health in the whole United States.”

Because of the Estero water temperature, newly spawned eggs must start their life in a shellfish hatchery.  “By 1884, California’s first fish hatchery near Mt. Shasta had been operating for a decade, sending millions of salmon eggs all over the world.  But not scientist was able to do the same for oysters….. an oyster egg lacks the yolk sac which nourishes you salmon until they are able to feed themselves.”

Enter a Russian fugitive from Soviet Russia, Victor Loosanoff.  “In 1919,..he fought on foot and horseback east to Harbin where the White Russian colony paid his way to the United States…he was on his own…working in the mines, summers fishing n Alaska, learning English, enrolling at the University of  Washington’s School of Fisheries, the first in the United States, patterned after the Imperial School of Fisheries in Tokyo.”

Loosanoff’s work measuring the toxicity of paper mill chemicals on fingerling salmon cost him his job. ” In 1930 the State of Virginia hired him to assess the condition of the once great oyster beds in the James River.  His findings have yet to be implemented. One year later, he moved north, to establish the shellfish laboratory in Milford, Connecticut.”

It took Loosanoff 31 years to provide the equivalent of the yolk sac for oysters. His quest included algae samples collected by Dr. Mary Park at the Isle of Man laboratory in 1934 and 1935.  These algae “provided the most reliable source of nourishment for all young clams and oysters, American, European and Japanese.”

Mrs. Seton writes that the Estero oysters are descendants of natives of the Bay of Sendai and “considerd the least difficult and most dependable.”  Their vulnerability to TB, Tributyl Tin, the killing ingredient in anti-foulant marine paint “helped the International Maritime Organization to limit the use of TBT…describing the chemical as the most toxic ever introduced into the marine environment.”

To be  continued


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