1 of 14In this photo taken April 9, 2015, a mature sea star clings to a concrete wall surrounded by barnacles on Washington’s Hood Canal near Poulsbo, Wash....More
In scattered sites along the Pacific Coast, researchers and others have reported seeing hundreds of juvenile sea stars, buoying hopes for a potential comeback from a disease that has caused millions of sea stars to disintegrate into goo.
LOPEZ PASS, Wash. (AP) — Emerging from a recent dive 40 feet below the surface of the Puget Sound, biologist Ben Miner wasn’t surprised by what he found: The troubling disease that wiped out millions of starfish up and down the West Coast had spread to this site along the rocky cliffs of Lopez Island.
He and another diver tallied the grim count on a clipboard he had taken underwater. Only two dozen adult starfish were found in an area where they once were abundant.
But Miner’s chart also revealed good news — a few baby starfish offered a glimmer of hope for the creature’s recovery.
In scattered sites along the Pacific Coast, researchers and others have reported seeing hundreds of juvenile starfish. The discovery has buoyed hopes for a potential comeback from a wasting disease that has caused millions of purple, red and orange starfish, or sea stars, to curl up, grow lesions, lose limbs and disintegrate into a pile of goo.
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“Babies. That’s what we hope for,” said Miner, associate professor of biology at Western Washington University. “If you’re hoping for sea star populations to recover, it’s the best news you can get to be able to go to sites and see that there are babies.”
At one site in Santa Cruz, California, more babies were counted in the past year or so than in the previous 15 years combined, said Pete Raimondi, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Not all the sites have seen juveniles and it hasn’t been broad. “It doesn’t mean all the sites do. It means something is going on up and down the coast and it’s a good sign,” Raimondi said.
Miner said juveniles, while not entirely immune, might be less susceptible to a virus fingered as the likely culprit of the sea star wasting disease, a sickness that has devastated about 20 species of sea stars from Alaska to Baja California since it was first reported off the Washington coast in June 2013.
Last fall, Miner, Raimondi and a team of scientists published new research linking a variety of densovirus to sea star wasting disease.
Now, biologists like Miner and others are shifting to a new phase of study. They are tracking whether baby starfish survive and what happens when a key predator of urchins, mussels and other species is lost.
Juveniles were observed at some sites before adults died and many appeared to have survived after the die-offs, Miner said.
One theory for why there are so many juveniles is that when adult starfish were stressed from the wasting disease, they released millions of eggs and sperm, increasing the chances for fertilization. Ideal conditions in recent months have helped push those larvae to the shore, where they’re able to cling to hard surfaces such as rocks and pilings to grow.
Now, Miner said, “the question is when these babies get big, will you expect them to die like the adults?”
Raimondi added it will take a few years of monitoring to know for sure whether the sea stars will grow and repopulate. And it’s too early to say how the ecosystem will change in their absence.
Scientists worry the loss of starfish could reshape coastal communities because they are top predators. There have been reports of sea urchins moving into areas where starfish once dominated.
And the worst of the wasting disease might still be ahead in some places, including along Washington’s Olympic Coast, where it was first reported in June 2013.
Steve Fradkin, a coastal ecologist with Olympic National Park, said the disease first infected about a quarter of the sea star population there. It all but disappeared last summer until this winter, when surveys again found the disease infected about 50 to 60 percent of the population.
The latest survey in mid-April found the disease had waned again — affecting just 30 percent of the population — but researchers are keeping a close eye on the area.
During the first low daytime tide a few weeks ago, Peg Tillery and three naturalist volunteers inspected pilings on Hood Canal, armed with a tape measure and clipboard to record as many adult and baby sea stars they could find on a set of pilings.
“I found more babies to count,” Tillery called out to the others. “Look at this guy and this guy. They’re all healthy.”
“There was a period of time when we found none,” said another volunteer Barb Erickson.
The women work quickly, as the tide recedes to reveal purple and orange sea stars clinging to barnacled pilings. They find babies hiding in crevices, some too small or tucked away to measure but all appeared healthy. They record 10 juveniles, some about the size of a quarter, 18 adult sea stars during that bi-weekly survey.
“We want them back,” said Tillery. “They’re part of the ecosystem. If they go away, what goes away next?”
THE SKY IS the ceiling of the Oyster Saloon. It has no walls. It is surrounded by enormous Douglas firs with strands of gray-green moss trailing from their shaggy branches; the craggy peaks of The Brothers, framed in a firred notch above the two-lane highway winding past; a pile of oyster shells bleached pure white by sun and rain, big enough you can drive a car up onto it; the sparkling or cloud-coated waters of Hood Canal, sometimes with tideflats. The oysters you eat at the Oyster Saloon come from right there. The distance from where they grow to your mouth is a matter of yards.
This is the almost unbearably scenic Hama Hama oyster farm, family-run for five generations. It’s located where the Hamma Hamma River meets Hood Canal. The spelling hadn’t been settled yet when the land was, and the joke (or maybe the truth) is that great-great-grandpa left out the extra M’s to save on ink. If you go just a little ways farther along the curve of Highway 101, you’ll see the elegant, antique arc of the bridge that crosses the south fork of the Hamma Hamma — a drawing of the bridge is the logo for the family’s work.
A plan to spray some Washington oyster beds with a neurotoxic pesticide has oyster fans and some environmental regulators alarmed. But the geology of the Hama Hama Company’s setting and the careful environmental stewardship practiced there keep its intertidal zone balanced and biodiverse. Read more about the oyster and pesticide issue in this column by Danny Westneat and story by Bethany Jean Clement.
The saloon itself has been in existence for just one year. Last spring, Lissa James Monberg, who’s in charge of retail and marketing, got the idea that it’d be fun to feed oysters to visitors on site, in addition to what they can get at the company store to take away. (The company store itself opened after passers-by would stop, knock and ask if there were oysters for sale.) So alongside theHama Hama Co.’s notably modest world headquarters, a bit of the world’s prettiest parking lot was cordoned off, with wire-contained columns of oyster shells around the perimeter.
More oyster shells hem in a fire pit, around which you may sit on a plank-and-stump bench or a cinder block. There are a few picnic tables, laid with hot sauce, salt and pepper, and paper napkins. Two cedar-and-fir pavilions offer shelter in inclement weather; the windows came from an old bathhouse. Lissa likes the way their raised plank floors sound like a boat’s deck, she says, tapping them with her rubber boot.
The saloon name came from the big, old-time places in New York City where oysters were cheap bar snacks and the floors were covered in sawdust. The bar here, beneath an overhang, has eight metal stools, beer and cider, and an unbeatable smell to go with the unbeatable view: salty air mixed with pines and the smoke of oysters cooking on the grill.
GRILLED OYSTERS are the standby of Lilliwaup, the unincorporated community along this particular stretch of shore, though people around here would more prosaically call them barbecued. Locals pretty much eschew oysters on the half-shell, while lots of visitors — barring traffic, Seattle is 2½ hours away by the pretty route, two by the fast one — have never had them cooked.
The goodness of a grilled oyster is difficult to explain to the uninitiated; they’re custardy in the middle, crisped around the edges, somehow both more and less oceanic than raw ones. You tend to eat them so fast that the memory is only a ghost that, when summoned, demands more.
Of course, the saloon serves raw oysters, too, and Hama Hama’s are prized for their sea-sweet, clarion flavor on the half-shell. It’s a taste that rings like a bell. Their fried oysters, with the oysterness concentrated and encased in a crisp, delicate, cornmeal crust, are a deeper brown than most; they’re pan-fried instead of deep-fried, which would be easier. The saloon sells them to pop in your mouth serially or on a po’boy.
Lissa’s brother, Adam James, runs the day-to-day that gets the oysters from Hood Canal to the platter. Their mom, Helena James, makes Dungeness crab cakes for the saloon, for the store and for the Ballard and University farmers markets. Asked if it’s a secret recipe, she laughs. She got it from Gourmet magazine years ago, though she didn’t have Old Bay seasoning, so she used Spike. “I think you could probably find something very similar on epicurious.com,” she says, smiling.
She and Lissa both make it clear that service at the Oyster Saloon can be a little rough-and-tumble. Last summer was much busier than they thought it would be, just from signs by the roadside and a couple Facebook posts, “And it was full of mishaps,” according to Helena. Getting your order or your bill sometimes took awhile, Lissa says. Her grandpa — Helena’s dad, Bart Robbins, who recently moved from Lilliwaup to a retirement home in nearby Shelton — came with friends, and he got his lunch, but the friends’ order got lost.
“We’ve had a steep learning curve on being a restaurant,” Helena says, laughing.
Luckily, Lissa says, people visiting Hama Hama are generally in a good mood. They’ve often been on a hike nearby — the company store has a book of them, or the affable guy manning the grill will tell you where the waterfalls are. There’s the canal to look at and, on a sunny day, the beer you have here is the best one you’ve ever had.
THE OYSTERS, originally, were incidental. Bart Robbins remembers the logging camp up the Hamma Hamma River Valley, where 300 men harvested timber, and life was rough-and-tumble indeed. Bart’s a tall man, somewhat taciturn. His nose is carved away on one side, the aftermath of a lifetime on the water in the days before sunscreen.
His grandfather, Daniel Miller Robbins, came west from Minneapolis and started accumulating timberland in the late 1800s. “He worked for J.J. Hill, building railroads,” Bart says. “It was all logging back then.” His grandfather didn’t even know he was getting the family into the oyster business.
Hama Hama facts
• The Oyster Saloon at the Hama Hama Company is two hours from Seattle by the fast route (Interstate 5 south to U.S. 101 north) and 2½ hours by the pretty route (via the Bainbridge ferry), traffic permitting.
• The Hama Hama Oyster Rama — a day of oyster revelry with beer, live music and more — is May 9, but tickets go fast:hamahamaoysters.com
• Hama Hama recommended reading/watching: The books “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell” and “Sex, Death & Oysters,” and “Oyster Farmer,” a 2004 Australian movie.
Back in the day, the oysters were sold off the beach in bulk. Then, during the Great Depression, it helped a lot to not have to feed the stock at Hama Hama; oysters eat algae and waterborne particulate plant matter. The virtues of pulling a nail out of a board and saving it, of building something yourself instead of paying someone to do it, were still handed down. In the 1950s, Bart moved out to the farm and made money any way he could, selling shake bolts, Christmas trees and more. He started shrimping, driving his catch into Seattle to sell, and then began including oysters in the deliveries. Invoices were payable to the Hama Hama Logging Company. Around 1975, the family leased the shellfish operation out; in the mid-1980s, they took it back under their wing.
There’s logging at Hama Hama still, done sustainably on a 60- to 80-year rotation. It’s true second growth up on the hills, and the way it’s managed, Adam James says, “allows the woods to get a little older, a little more decadent.”
He can show you where the railroad tracks used to lead right up to the beach for the shipping of the timber, and if the timing’s right, that might be exactly where you see a plump, sinuous river otter, closer than you can believe. The Hama Hama land’s also home to massive Roosevelt elk (sometimes visible from the bridge), blue herons, bald eagles (sometimes known to eat the baby blue herons) and several kinds of scoters (who like to eat Hama Hama clams — hence the nets out on the tideflats).
The gravelly soils brought down the valley with the river help make this such a sweet spot for oysters, building up the tideflats into the beds on which they rest and flourish. For a long time, the oysters that are now gourmands’ half-shell pleasure were all shucked and sold in jars, ready for frying or oyster stew. This is how the shell pile got so monumental. The half-shell part of the Hama Hama operation, with oysters shipped whole and alive, didn’t begin until around 1960, at Bart Robbins’ suggestion.
“We were selling through the Oyster Growers Cooperative,” he says. “All you heard about in the East was half-shell oysters, and it wasn’t out here at all. So we got started doing that. It’s certainly grown since then.”
The use of the land and the waters are now the charge of a board made up of members of the extended family. Historically, the presidency of the board went father-son, but the newest president is Kendra James. She’s Adam and Lissa’s boss when it comes to the oyster company, and she’s also their sister-in-law. It’s the first time the board president has been a woman or an in-law. Lissa says Kendra’s doing a great job.
WHILE THE Hama Hama Co. oyster farm has certainly grown, it’s not what you’d call large. About 30 people make it happen, including Juan Aguilar, who’s been shucking oysters and driving them to Seattle for Hama Hama for 18 years, and Teresa Rabbie, who has packed oysters into jars for 22 years. (Taylor Shellfish Farms, by way of comparison, has around 500 employees.) The oysters are gathered by hand from the beach, in what would be backbreaking work if it weren’t time-limited by the return of the tide. But the tide also means that sometimes oysters must be harvested in the dead of night, in freezing winter wind and rain.
You can get a tide-table app for your phone now, but Adam James says it can’t fully account for the waters’ mysteries. Barometric pressure can make a tide change more slowly and go significantly lower or higher. At a conference recently, Adam heard a talk about all the factors that guide the tide; it only confused matters. He’s waiting for the day when he can feel it in his knees, he says with a laugh.
A day for him, tides depending, might start in the early morning with sorting through orders from renowned restaurants like the Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle, L & E Oyster Bar in Los Angeles, Bavette’s in Chicago, and Aquagrill and the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York.
Then he or one of the crew will go out on the barge, which is a platform with a wheelhouse, motor and a crane; on a pretty morning, its noise and angles contrast the canal’s ethereal pearly gray. The horizon can be barely distinguishable, no clear border between water and woods and sky. Mist can suddenly envelop everything.
“It’s kind of like by Braille — we’ve got these buoys out here, and these marker stakes,” Adam says. They could, of course, use GPS, but “that would take the fun out of it.”
As with all farming, there’s a lot of moving stuff from place to place. Some buoys mark big, rusty cages of oysters that will come in to be sorted, then restored to the water, grouped by size, to make dealing with them more efficient down the line. Adam says you’d be surprised to know how much, in its raising, your oyster is touched by human hands: possibly a dozen or more times.
“A lot of the things we do are what Grandpa did,” he says, but they’ve also added modern techniques to old-school wild capture. That pile of shells, for instance, isn’t mounding up as fast as it used to; the leftovers from Juan’s shucking sometimes go back out on the barge to be dumped unceremoniously back in Puget Sound, because, in season, they’re dotted with almost microscopic live baby-oyster seeds. Some seedlings come from hatcheries, too, now. And in 2011, Hama Hama started farming Blue Pools: Like the sought-after Kusshi oysters, they’re tumbled, grown in mesh bags suspended on frames so that the tide agitates them, chipping their edges and making them grow deeper cups.
Customers want different kinds of oysters nowadays, Adam says. The Blue Pools accommodate that, and the tumbling could be called a value-add, though he wouldn’t put it like that. He looks pained talking about other companies’ marketing and brands; there’s one named Naked Cowboy, another featuring imagery of a sexy lady. Hama Hama, in a further accommodation of the contemporary oyster customer, has started distributing another variety of tumbled oyster, from south Puget Sound, but its name is anti-sexy: Sea Cow. The company also partners with independent oyster farmers in Pickering and Hammersley, and has leases for more oyster-growing in Pickering and up north on the Olympic Peninsula, near Port Townsend. The growth is measured, Adam says, not undertaken lightly.
Back on land, he figures out what the crew needs to harvest for tomorrow’s orders and deals with loose ends in the office. Today he runs home and returns with his eldest, Emmett, who’s 3½ years old. The barge is beached in its slip, with more offloading and loading going on.
“Da-Da, why is the water so shallow down there?” asks Emmett.
“Because the tide’s out,” Adam says.
Down on the beach, Emmett runs free, finds a multi-legged sand worm, digs in the sand and goes in the water over the tops of his boots, with glee. Adam reminisces about daring a friend to eat a sand worm sandwiched between two Doritos, a dare the friend took. “He lived,” Adam says.
Bags of Blue Pools, still half-submerged, are slowly loaded onto a boat. Meanwhile, three crew members dig clams, then two of them head out to pick oysters. The Blue Pools get moved from the boat to a truck, and someone runs the oyster-laden vehicle into the only piling anywhere near on the beach, which everyone finds hilarious.
Lissa walks out to the oyster beds as dusk falls. “The gloaming,” she says.
“It’s atavistic,” she says. “You know, we have bags, we have buoys, but people have been picking up oysters forever.”
The wind ruffles the surface of the water, which is the same color as the sky: a darkening, piercing blue. The crew finishes up, and the tide takes the beds back for the night.
A spot shrimp is pulled from a pot in Hood Canal. Photo credit: Chris Eardley.
For four days in May, the waters of the Hood Canal will become the destination for shrimp lovers from around the region. Shrimp season is allowed on Hood Canal between 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. on May 2, 9, 11 and 13. Get ready to harvest your limit of delicious spot shrimp.
Chris Eardley, a shellfish biologist with theSkokomish Tribe is excited about this year’s shrimp season. “It is looking to be a strong year. Catch rates in test fisheries are comparable to last year, which was a strong year. Recent years have been very good, with this year shaping up to continue that trend. The shrimp fishery continues to give, with good management, enough shrimp for everyone.”
Spot shrimp are a historical source of food for the Skokomish, as well as the settlers who homesteaded in the region. The spot shrimp are unique to the region, and are some of the most popular shrimp to eat, largely due to the fact that they are sweet in taste and generally don’t need any seasoning to be a tasty treat. Easy to catch and large in size (around nine inches in length), the spot shrimp are usually safe to eat in the protected waters of the Hood Canal.
Shrimp season on Hood Canal is big business, even though it only lasts four days. Photo credit: Chris Eardley
Shrimping is huge business for the local economy and an opportunity for residents and visitors to celebrate the return of the warm weather to the region. The season opener is held on the same weekend each year and makes for a timeless tradition on Hood Canal. Thanks to the great management, by both the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Skokomish Tribe, fishing and shrimping is stable year after year, ensuring that folks who visit the region can eat some incredible self-caught seafood at home. Shrimp can be caught throughout the canal, but spot shrimp tend to enjoy the deeper waters so set your pots at depths between 125 – 200 feet.
While there may be many places known for getting good shrimp, one of the best bets for easy boat access is the boat launch, owned and operated by the Skokomish Tribe. The Potlatch boat launch is located three miles south of Hoodsport, just north of the Potlatch State Park. The launch is fairly steep, meaning it is usable during most tides.
During opening day on Saturday, the morning tide will be perfect for launching, and the afternoon tide will be great for returning after a successful day catching shrimp. Be aware that the south end of the park is currently under construction while a sockeye hatchery is being built on the premises. Please remember to be respectful to the construction crew and their equipment, as well as making sure all garbage ends up in trash cans. The local crows and gulls can be messy. Also be aware that there will be a small fee to launch.
People are allowed to take 80 spot shrimp on four different days in May on Hood Canal. Photo credit: Chris Eardley.
Shrimping season for the Skokomish is an important event. “For the Tribe, the shrimp season helps kick off a very productive stretch of the year for fishing. It comes shortly after the geoduck opener and before crab and salmon,” explains Eardley. “Many tribal folks look forward to annual gatherings with family to share a shrimp feast and to stock the freezer, and others have regular customers that look forward to buying from the Tribe.”
“The shrimp fishery creates a palpable buzz locally and is a good mix of fun, tradition, and business for the Skokomish Tribe,” adds Eardley.
The Hood Canal shrimp and fishing seasons are also extremely important for the entire region, serving as the official opening for many local businesses that close during the off-season. Considered one of the biggest boating days on Hood Canal, the shrimp season opener brings in plenty of visitors to the area.
“The communities around the Canal seem to ‘wake up’ from a winter slumber the first weekend of May,” Eardley sums up. “Spot shrimp are part of the seafood cornucopia that has sustained the Tribe for generations and remains important today. The Tribe traditionally (and today) followed resources around the Canal throughout the year—harvesting whatever was in season. Shrimp have always been, and remain, an important ceremonial and subsistence item, once caught with weaved cedar traps and popular potlatch fare. They continue to be the seasonal centerpiece of special gatherings and family affairs, and when shrimp season approaches, there is a tangible buzz in the air.”
The 2015 spot shrimp season opens on May 2 on Hood Canal.
The start of the shrimping season marks the return of outdoor activities in warm weather with long daylight hours, perfect to explore the many wonders and scenic destinations around the canal. Stop by stores, buy some oysters, shrimp and salmon, and reconnect with the wilderness and deliciousness of our corner of the Pacific Northwest.
During the May shrimping season, a daily limit of only 80 shrimp is allowed, a small amount compared to the June to October limit of 10 pounds a day, but still limited to 80 spot shrimp. For more information on daily limits and rules on shrimping season.