Oysterville Sea Farms – Putting the Oyster Back in Oysterville

The Oysterville Cannery today. Photo by Oliver Robbins

For generations before the pioneer settlers arrived, Chinook Indians gathered oysters and camped in the area that is now Oysterville. They called it “tsako-te-hahsh-eetl” which, like many Indian words, had two meanings: “place of the red-topped grass” and “home of the yellowhammer (or red-shafted flicker).”

restoration1Soon after the first white settlers arrived, Oysterville became a rowdy, lusty boomtown. By 1855 its population and importance were such that it became the seat of Pacific County, Washington Territory. The town had many firsts – a school, college, newspaper, and finally, in 1872, a church – First Methodist.

Late in the 1880s fate took a hand: the long awaited railroad line ended at Nahcotta, an isolating four miles away, the native oysters became scarce and, without the possibility of a local livelihood, residents moved out en masse. Finally, in 1893, the courthouse records were stolen in the middle of the night, and the county seat was moved to its current location in South Bend. Oysterville gradually became the sleepy little village it is today. (adapted from the Oysterville Restoration Foundation website)

restoration2The only oyster business in town these days is Oysterville Sea Farms (OSF), founded in 1991 by Dan Driscoll, a third-generation oyster farmer who grew up in Seattle, but spent his summers in Oysterville helping his dad on the farm and learning the ropes. After graduating from the University of Washington with degrees in Communications and Psychology, he moved to Los Angeles to work in the film business. “Life was good down there, but not fulfilling,” he told me.

He lived and worked in LA for seven years before returning to the Northwest, to visit his family in Oysterville. It was October 1990.

“My dad told me that he had a business that was not good enough to sell, but too good to give up, and asked if I wanted it. I said sure, but only if you and mom give me the cannery. They did give me the cannery, which was pretty mean of them, because the cannery was in such bad shape then it was a liability,” he recalled.

restoration3His father helped to start the process of restoring the cannery building and his mother “even went to the Oysterville design review board to get their approval, got our first shoreline exemption permit, and our first building permit for the Oysterville cannery restoration project.”

Short History of Oysterville Cannery
In 1939 the property on which the building is located was sold by Ed and Randolph Sherwood to a partnership called Northern Oyster Company, made up of Glen Heckes, Roy Kemmer and Ted Holway, all active oystermen with sizable oyster beds. The building went up in 1940, and received massive government contracts after the start of the U.S. role in World War II in December 1941. Ted and Virginia Holway eventually owned 100% of Northern Oyster Company, and in 1966, they signed a contract with their daughter Ruth and her husband Dick Sheldon to sell them the company.

In 1969, oyster canning operations at the Oysterville Cannery were shut down. The Sheldons retained Northern Oyster Company, which included the oyster beds, equipment and boats. This left the Holways with the cannery and no means to support it.

Les Driscoll in the field.

In 1973, Les Driscoll (Dan’s father) began selling both oysters and non-seafood items at the cannery in the summertime. Soon after, the Holways gave the Oysterville Cannery to Les and his wife Virginia Ann. On April 21, 1976 the Oysterville Cannery Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Restoring the Cannery and Building the Business
Driscoll and his parents spent about 20 years restoring the cannery, partially financing the project (which Driscoll says costs “in the hundreds of thousands”) by selling shellfish and other items marketed under the Willabay label. Finally, in 2011, the restoration was pretty much complete, and Driscoll set his sights on starting to recoup his investment, and continuing to involve the community in the business. Most of the oyster farmers on Willapa Bay sell their oysters wholesale to markets on the West Coast and beyond. But OSF is a retail operation, both on-line and fresh at the cannery.

In June 2011, an anonymous complaint was received by Pacific County concerning the selling of certain items at the cannery. The complaint alleged that OSF was out of compliance with Pacific County’s latest development and zoning ordinance, adopted in the early 2000s. That ordinance strictly limits the type of development and business activity allowed on the shoreline of Willapa Bay. Since that complaint, OSF has been clamoring to comply and stay open, but has also been fighting many of the decisions of various state and local agencies.

Though these battles are on-going, the gist of the whole debate about whether OSF should or shouldn’t be allowed to continue to follow its business plan is best summed up in the testimony of Alan Trimble, a professor at the University of Washington, who has worked in the Willapa Bay area for over a decade, at a Pacific County Planning Commission meeting on November 3, 2011. The following is a shortened version of that testimony.

Should OSF Be Allowed to Do Business?
“My name is Alan Trimble. I’m a scientist at the University of Washington. I’ve been working here about a decade now and we live in Nahcotta right across from the port. I’m a marine ecologist. My profession is to worry about the science of water quality and things living in bays, and I’ve devoted a decade to this particular estuary and I have to say it’s a pretty special place – entirely by accident.

“People will claim that they are responsible for keeping it the way it is, but actually the fact is it’s the way it is because we already removed most of the resources from this place and most of the businesses failed. If you look at ancient pictures of Raymond, South Bend and Nahcotta and Oysterville, there were restaurants, there were bars, there were hotels, there were roads, there was a railroad, and there were several mills all over the bay. There was a very large industrial business, and in fact the Oysterville cannery was in the commercial district of Oysterville.

dan16“All of it is gone, essentially, and now we’re left with what we’ve got. I completely understand the desire to try and keep working buildings on the water working, given how hard it is to get any new buildings ever built anywhere. It’s very hard. It’s also extremely hard to start up a new shellfish business – the number of permits required and difficult things that people have to do to try and even begin to do any shellfishery in this bay is nearly impossible.

“So I would suggest that we don’t actually have the problem we think we have. It is not that somebody is here trying to petition this place to put in a Wal-Mart or a power plant or a pulp and paper mill. This is someone who’s operating the one and only (talk about unique!) building of its type on the bay. There are no others. No one else can come through here and petition to change this kind of building (that they also happen to have) into a restaurant, or a place that sells T-shirts, or an art studio, or anything else. There aren’t any other ones.

“So I don’t see the conflict, frankly. I don’t see the specter on the horizon of hundreds of large businesses coming to the edge of the bay looking to scoop up the last three remaining historic buildings and turn them into some corporate empire. I don’t see it. And I do see that the protections that the federal government has on historic buildings (and there’s a reason why they have them)…it’s almost impossible to keep them standing. Most of those places have to have limited liability corporations and nonprofits to get donations just to keep the building standing. And they have to do all sorts of special events and things to keep those buildings viable and to continue to comply with permits: put in new septic systems, upgrade pilings, whatever it is that they have to do to continue to exist no matter where they are. It’s really expensive, and having a business with only one aspect – let’s say that the only legal aspect was to sell shucked oysters, and that was somehow in the county codes – there wouldn’t be a business standing on this peninsula. If that’s all they did, they’d be gone.

“People have diversified: they sell clams, they sell crab, they sell salmon, they sell other things to remain viable. I think we’ve all been in the other stores around the bay that sell clams and oysters and soda pop and other things. It’s not a big deal to sell a T-shirt, really, with respect to water quality.

“So, my two-cents-worth as a scientist is this: Puget Sound is trashed, and will be forever. So is Chesapeake Bay, so is Willapa Bay: if you look at it from the perspective of what it used to be, it is nothing like it used to be. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s almost nothing left of what it used to be, species-wise. It’s dominated by introduced species that we farm, trees that are planted at ridiculous densities to be harvested to make paper, and a few houses. It is nothing like it used to be.

“My paramount goal as a scientist is to keep this place working as a sustainable community that uses the resources we have and the people we have – jointly – to succeed in progressing into the future.

Dan the Oyster Man
Dan the Oyster Man

“Dan’s business, while it has some warts (it hasn’t been perfect, and I don’t think anybody would say that it has) is a reasonably good model of how to succeed against all the pressures that are out there. I think that I would suggest that this group figure out a way to reach a legitimate compromise to show a model of how a sustainable, small, multifaceted, waterfront business can actually work – because there aren’t any other ones: it’s the only one we have. Right, we have canneries, but nobody can go there and buy anything. We have people that ship to faraway places, but nobody can go to you to buy anything. It’s not a…it’s a different thing: those are industries. This (Oysterville Sea Farms) is not an industry.

“Finally, I see absolutely no threat whatsoever from this kind of business – in fact this specific business – to the water quality or health of Willapa Bay. I can’t find one. It may be there, but the county has specified an ungodly-expensive septic system, and they don’t pump seawater and they don’t dump fresh water into the bay, and they collect all their garbage and they don’t even have a real kitchen in the building over the water – it’s across the road on land.

“People walk out on the dock and look around, and sit on decks in chairs, and eat some food and talk to each other, and see the beautiful bay out there, and begin to understand what aquaculture is all about. It’s the only place on the whole bay where they can do that. It’s the only place that you can sit and enjoy eating oysters while you’re watching a dredge dredge oysters in front of your face. And the thought that that’s going to go away and that’s going to be a positive benefit to the bay I think is asinine.

“So let’s not confuse the issue of whether this is opening the door to the world destroying Willapa Bay. If there was a whole waterfront district like there is in Seattle and Tacoma and Olympia and Chesapeake Bay, with hundreds and hundreds of waterfront buildings out over the water with old pilings rotting into the bay, and somebody was going to bring in a Costco or a Wal-Mart or IBM or Intel and put a factory there, that’s a whole other thing – and I bet you a lot of people would show up at a meeting like this to talk about that.

“But that’s not what this is about, so I don’t want us to be confused about that.”

While the dust settles from the legal battles, OSF goes on. In future installments of this story, we will delve a little deeper into the issues and the various players in the debate, and hopefully document the solutions that allow Driscoll and OSF, along with the rest of the Willapa Bay shellfish companies, so important to Pacific County’s economy, to continue to deliver the great shellfish they are known for locally and worldwide.

By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.