Tribe uses tide to farm oysters in Sequim Bay

Oysters are taking a tumble in the tides of Sequim Bay in a bid by the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe to produce a higher quality product for consumers.

"We're using the tide to manipulate the oysters," said Chris Whitehead, the tribe's shellfish biologist.

Oyster tumbling involves stuffing young oysters into mesh bags, attaching a buoy and securing the bags to a single horizontal stainless steel rod held in place by rebar stakes driven into the muck at low tide.

The oyster seed-filled bags pivot on the rod and float as the tide rolls in and sink back to the bottom as the tide recedes. The ebb and flow of the tides agitates the oysters from one end to the other or "tumbles" them.

The action mimics nature, encouraging the oysters to break off new growth at the bill - the colorful, fringed outer edge - and harden their shells as they mature.

The tumble bag system helps the Pacific oysters focus growth energy to the more curved lower shell, the cup, rather than the bill; the latter is typical to the region.

The deeper cup shell gives the Pacific oysters the look of Kumamoto oysters, highly valued by consumers worldwide. The growing method has been used successfully at other shellfish growing operations throughout the region.

"This is a pilot study for us this year but if we have a successful harvest this fall, we may scale it up next year," Whitehead said.

Oyster farming has come a long way, from long-lining mother shells to suspending bags several feet above the substrate to the tumble bag system, he added.

The tribe hopes to provide opportunities for tribal members to come and harvest from their native shores as well as to supply shellfish to enterprises such as the tribal casino, deli and golf course.

Tiffany Royal is the regional information officer, Hood Canal/Strait of Juan de Fuca, for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

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