2012 Native Oyster Hunt – a photoessay

Morning beach survey

Now that the weather has turned back to crap fall, I’ve been reviewing some photos from this summers Native (Olympia) oyster Field Trip to Nootka Sound.   I have assembled some as a bit of a photo essay.  Most of the photos are on my personal photosite and are may be more arty than scientific.  Click thru to  see.First some background, followers of the Field Station may remember that conservation and research into restoration of the Native Olympia oyster is one of our projects of interest.  Previous posts on this subject can be found here and here.

During the last two years the  Canadian Wildlife Foundation (CWF) has generously funded student based summer research projects (thank-you thank-you) and in 2011 the  Habitat Stewardship Program  for Species at Risk (HSP) funded the start of a program that would use our  aquaculture skills to breed Native oysters in the lab with the intent of creating a broodstock pool on our research farm that might accelerate natural restoration in Baynes Sound.

This year we were not successful in our grant application to the highly competitive HSP program but we were still able to spawn and rear a few in our limited spare time. We’ll be applying again this year so wish us luck.


(note: some of the following is plagiarized from a previous post)  The Native or Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida) is an integral a part of the Pacific Northwest as are Pacific salmon, yet because of its near annihilation a century ago, it has mostly slipped beneath the threshold of public awareness. Olympia oysters are BC’s only native oyster and were listed under SARA as a species of special concern in 2003 and are Blue listed by the Province of BC. Until the late 1800s, Olympia oysters were highly abundant supporting sustenance and commercial fisheries and occupying thousands of acres of productive, diverse habitat.

Beginning with the California gold rush and then extending north up the coast; over-exploitation, habitat alteration and pollution led to significant declines along the entire coast and near-extirpation in some areas.  While remnant populations can still be found today, this species occupies a fraction of its former range in vastly lower numbers and is now functionally extinct through many of the estuaries where it once thrived.

Since the early 1900s, impacts on the Olympia oyster have been dramatically reduced with the collapse and closure of the fisheries and reductions in pollution and habitat alteration, such as improved industrial practices to reduce sedimentation rates in estuaries.  Despite this, their populations have not rebounded.  This has led to impressive restoration efforts in the United States; despite a serious lack of basic research and knowledge on the species.  Restoration efforts are driven by several motivations including the desire to restore important ecosystem services provided by healthy estuaries (e.g. water filtration, shoreline stabilization and creation of important biogenic structure); a desire to restore a native species at risk of extirpation; and the potential of farming a native species of oyster for commercial harvest.

In 2008, the CSR starting working with  the Puget Sound Restoration Fund led by our great friend Betsy Peabody and the Nature Conservancy to look for the last “ecologically functional” populations of this species in Nootka Sound.  Joined by Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff and aided by local oyster farmer Bob Devault we have made two previous trips to Nootka Sound to study what maybe some of the last intact reefs.

What we found on those trips was pretty amazing, intact reefs of this species, unlike anything any of our “Olympia oyster experts” had ever seen.   These are believed to the last few acres of intact reefs – the mountain gorilla of oysters as it were.


For a slideshow about this work (first trip) narrated by Nature Conservancy’s Senior Marine Scientist Mike Beck follow this link.  In addition to biologists, we were joined on our first trip by oyster and food writer Rowan Jacobsen whose essay about the trip can be found here.  This essay would later become the inspiration for Rowan’s book the Living Shore (sold at the station).   Unfortunately, none of our research partners (or us) have had the funds to continue studying the Nootka Sound populations and we hope that the they will remain intact until we can continue  discovering what makes these reefs so special.


Puget Sound Restoration Fund Biologist Brian Allen sets up temporary office in Nootka Sound (2009)

In the interim ,we have continued to think a lot about Native Oysters and are emboldened by increased local interest in this species.  Read Jeff Nield’s great piece in the Tyee:  An Oyster to Fight For.   Other groups such as the World Fisheries Trust have started studying remnant (but stable) populations in the Victoria Gorge Waterway (Portage Inlet).  As Jeff Nield wrote:

“There is also, among fans of the Oly, a sense that the restoration of the original oyster would have symbolic weight — an acknowledgement of past errors and of a commitment to live more wisely on the landscape that sustains us.”

lurida on gigas

Native oysters on the shell of a large co-existing Pacific Oyster – nice gold light comes from early morning sunrise.

So this summer our friend and colleague Tammy Norgard at Fisheries and Oceans Pacific Biological Station told us that she was planning to go back into Port Eliza and conduct a triennial population reference  survey that would be used to monitor long term changes in abundance.

She was pretty shorthanded, so four of us volunteered to go along to help, probably only biologists would take a vacation by going along as technicians on someone else’s research trip LOL.

How to get a biologist smiling

Boat ramp Zeballos Harbour

Standard biology field trip collection of mostly personal gear.  Makes me think we should approach North Face (gear bags), Mountain Equip Coop and Pelican Products for sponsorships (note if you are reading I could add links 🙂 )

We had planned to take two boats but had one casualty right off when a previously checked out trailer brake on the Atrevida trailer melted down without getting far from the station so we just took one DFO rigid hull inflatable, made a personnel run and then a freight run from Zeballos out to the Nuchatlitz Islands where we would stay with our friend Bob Devault in his piece of remote paradise.

Casa Bob

Casa Bob on Nuchatlitz Island (2009 photo)

Nuchatlitz Sunset

This is the summer sunset view from Bob’s house through a tidal channel full of eelgrass.

Bear crossing mud flat

A black bear crossing the channel in front of the house one night while we were eating dinner.

Morning sunbursts in the fog

A sunstar (Pycnopodia helianthoides) finds itself high and dry at sunrise

Summer tides on the west coast are very early in the AM which meant being on the beach before dawn and being greeted by some incredible sunrises.  I have to admit my volunteer assistance was somewhat spotty with running around with my tripod and all.

Setting transect

To conduct the surveys we would first run a reference tape down the beach locations to sample would be generated from a random numbers table as X and Y locations down the tape.

follow the tape

Taken from the other end of the tape while being regulated to be useful by holding it. 

A solid bed of Native oysters here.  I know of no other location across their entire range where so many olys occur in such density over a large area.  Although even this is low compared to historical reefs that were know to have existed.


Sample quadrat and calipers

Once sampling locations were marked off we would then use 0.25m sampling quadrats to count the number of live oysters within each quadrat as well as measure a sub sample.  From this data a population estimate is able to be calculated.  We also used GPS units to establish the perimeter and thus area of the oyster bed.  Good news is that the Nootka Sound beds are still doing well.

Morning beach survey

Lifting morning fog and a gorgeous inlet as backdrop as one crew measures and another records (and in this case ponders the science).  This is a blend of 5 different exposures to catch the lighting so they had to freeze their work for the shots – thus the fun pose.

Red Riding Hood sampling

Rianna back from a gap year in Australia finishes her quadrat in the water.

The tide always seems to go out slow and come in quick (its an illusion) but the last few quadrats can get dicey to finish.

Nootka Sound is a pretty cool place and besides the black bears there is a lot of other charismatic megafauna around that necessitated some slow downs on the way to and from Casa Bob’s.

SeaOtter1_0431 copy1c
A curious sea otter watches us go by (Bill Pennell photo)

Westcoast Humpback 2

A sounding humpback chases a school of pilchard at the entrance to Esperanza Inlet

After the tides we went out to some of the outer beaches so that UVIC coop student Paige Borrett could conduct baseline monitoring transects for potential tsunami debris as part of her DFO summer project.

Beach Cheerleading

 Paige jumping for a project portrait.

Easter egg?

fortunately not much debris so far.

Paige’s GPS transects and photos will provide a baseline for future monitoring.

Nuchatlitz lookout

Beach on outside of Nuchatlitz Island

I used the opportunity to hike up to an old First Nations look-out for a better view.

One Response to “2012 Native Oyster Hunt – a photoessay”

  1. An almost forgotten history of Native Oysters on Vancouver Island | VIU Deep Bay Marine Field Station Updates Says:

    […] Last year we worked again with funding from Environment Canada Habitat Stewardship Fund to initiate Native Olympia oyster restoration activities in Baynes Sound.   Previous blog articles on our Native oyster work can be found here:  1-research objective, 2-hatchery, 3-2012 update, 4- field work. […]

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