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Olympia Oyster Grower Shina Wysocki

Reporting by Bellamy Pailthorp
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Shina Wysocki holds an oyster grown on her family farm in Olympia, Wash. | Parker Miles Blohm

Shina Wysocki grew up on the shores of Eld Inlet in Olympia. She feels at home here. Standing on the beach in her rubber boots as the tide comes in, the spouts of geoducks that make up her family business’ bread and butter spray cheerfully all around, like little fountains.

“My family has been shellfish farming here for 30 years. And before that my ancestors shellfish farmed about five generations back in the same inlet,” Wysocki said.

Her parents founded the latest venture, Chelsea Farms, which she and her brother now run. They have made it a priority to run it sustainably, with fresh clams and several varieties of oysters growing as well as the geoducks.

Wysocki said she’s hoping to hand off the business to her children when the time comes. That means finding ways to support the ecosystem.

Chelsea Farms in Olympia Washington.
Workers at Chelsea Farms load oysters onto boats in Olympia, Wash. | Parker Miles Blohm

“The Salish Sea controls everything that my family does. It’s where we live and work and recreate. Its waters provide everything that our farm needs,” she said.

One of her initiatives is to help revive the native Olympia Oyster, which was once an abundant source of food here, but was driven to the brink of extinction in the 1930s because of overharvesting and pollution. When the opportunity arose to start cultivating them on her farm a couple of years ago, she jumped at the opportunity.

“The Olympia Oysters are more resilient to ocean acidification, which is strange because they seem to be hypersensitive to pollution in general,” she said.

Other varieties of oysters have trouble forming shells when the ocean is too acidic, a phenomenon that has been worsened by increasing fossil fuel emissions. Wysocki says the Olympias are more able to adapt.

“In this one case they seem more resilient than the Pacifics,” she said, smaller than the more common naturalized Pacific oysters (which Chelsea Farms also grows), Olympias are the only oyster species native to the west coast of the United States. Wysocki says they taste different too.

“They’re like little powerhouses of flavor and oyster-ness,” she said. “They have a very strong horseradish-y, coppery, flavor that gives them kind of like a zing. So they have a very big pop of flavor, compared to a Pacific which is much creamier and milder. They’re just a different species.”

Chelsea Farms in Olympia Washington.
A worker at Chelsea Farms harvests geoducks during low tide in Olympia, Wash. | Parker Miles Blohm

Restoration efforts began a few decades ago, and commercial growing is part of that effort. Wysocki said getting people to enjoy eating them helps create a connection to the need for clean water and stewardship.

“There’s nothing closer to the Salish Sea than eating oysters from it,” she said. ”So here I am, growing Olympias and serving them in Olympia, my hometown. It feels pretty cool.”

The family opened an oyster bar in downtown Olympia a couple of years ago as part of their marketing strategy.

Wysocki said the Olympia Oyster not only tastes good, but also embodies the natural history of the region.

“The tribal people that lived all around the Salish Sea could rely on it as a food source, a great protein food source that they could just walk out and pick off the tidelands,” she said.

The first non-native people who came also used the oyster as an important food source.

“It was the first agricultural product to be shipped out of Washington state, and we were sending oysters on sailing ships to San Francisco,” Wysocki said, adding that this tiny bivalve was at the heart of what allowed people here to prosper.

“It brought people to the Salish Sea and allowed them to live here in some comfort,” she said.

The oyster ranks with other food sources here such the salmon, geoducks and seaweed that contributed to the establishment of communities and accumulation of wealth.

“So the oyster is a huge part of that,” she said. “It's still important and should be honored in its heritage, and its flavor - it just tastes good.”

Flowers in the field
Wysocki pulls out oysters from a tank just up the hill from the shores where workers harvest oysters and geoducks. | Parker Miles Blohm

Reading List

Shina Wysocki's suggested readings: