Oyster Farms Yield Many of the Mollusks and Invite Visitors
While the federal government busies itself retrogressively nixing protections for national parks and endangered species, an unexpected environmental hero quietly rests in the saline waters of Humboldt Bay—the humble and elegant oyster. Both seafood and sustainability are flourishing on the North Coast, where oysters (and farmers) are positively impacting the health of intertidal waters and the entire region.
Given their knack for either romancing or reviling eaters while being eaten alive, oysters are already fascinating characters. Plus, each mollusk filters between 30 and 50 gallons of water through its gills each day, helping to remove pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide from ocean water. Additionally, oysters are a keystone species, which means that a web of marine plants and animals depends on them for survival. A healthy oyster culture attracts diverse sea life, controls algae, and improves water clarity. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a guide that helps consumers make smart choices about seafood, gives Pacific oysters the green light on sustainability—the shellfish are ranked as a Best Choice seafood option.
Looking across the calm, metallic surface of the Humboldt Bay, visitors would never guess the beehive of activity thriving below. The largest protected body of water between San Francisco and Seattle, Humboldt Bay encompasses 17,000 acres and is home to thousands of migratory birds and hundreds of species of native plants, invertebrates, and fish. Humboldt Bay Harbor is a regulatory body that protects and governs Bay activity by promoting responsible recreation and conservation. According to the organization, the unique tidal flushing of Humboldt Bay makes it the perfect environment for culturing marine organisms like oysters. On any given year, 60-90% of California’s oysters are harvested from Humboldt County, a surprise to those who only identify the region with redwoods and cannabis. While Bay Area chefs and foodies have driven up demand for exportation, in order to enjoy the freshest oysters and most authentic taste, a trip to Humboldt County is worth the drive.
The largest operation in Humboldt Bay is Coast Seafoods, a subsidiary of Pacific Seafoods. The company owns and operates thirty-eight processing and distribution centers from Alaska to Chile. In Eureka, Coast Seafoods harvests a 70:30 percent pull of Kumamoto and Pacific oysters from nearly 300 acres of oyster beds. Using a technique known as “off-bottom culture,” oysters grow while suspended in floating bags or cages, tied off to vertical stakes of rebar. Located in intertidal zones, the oyster farms are partially exposed or submerged depending on tidal shifts throughout the day. This natural movement of water or “flushing” helps to sustain a healthy oyster culture, minimizing pollutants and helping the oysters develop a strong shell and deep cup.
Off-bottom techniques have been utilized since the mid 1990s, when environmentalists and fishermen started voicing concern about the harm caused by “bottom culture” farming. Also, a method used to harvest wild oysters, in bottom culture operations, farmers plant oyster seed, baby oysters attached to small bits of shell, on the bay floor, before blasting them out three years later with a hydraulic harvesting machine. Mimicking a story all too familiar in aquaculture, the heavy dredging causes significant harm to eelgrass beds, a vital source of food for brant, bat rays, and a host of marine life. Today, various government agencies and conservation groups like Humboldt Baykeeper, collaborate on monitoring the health of Humboldt Bay and ensure that negative impacts are tracked and minimized. In 2011, California Congressman Mike Thompson explained how far the industry has come, stating, “These oyster farmers do more good for the environment by accident than most people do intentionally.”
With a smaller and more diverse business, Sebastian Elrite has been an oyster farmer in Humboldt for over twenty years. After graduating from Humboldt State University with a degree in wildlife management, Elrite landed a job working at North Bay Shellfish, while also cementing a sublease for his own oyster operation, Aqua-Rodeo Farms. He explains that the privately leases in coastal waters are uncommon in California, where coastal zones are often controlled by regional jurisdiction. Subleasing affords Elrite the ability to farm small-scale, without corporate backers, and supports Aqua-Rodeo’s direct-to-consumer philosophy. Five years ago, Elrite (known locally as Captain Sebastian) and his partners opened Humboldt Bay Provisions to showcase locally made beer, wine, cheese, bread, chocolate, olives, and, of course, oysters. A unique business model—part oyster bar, part tourism center—Humboldt Provisions (205 G Street) is located in historic Buhne Building in Old Town Eureka. The tall ceilings, gleaming redwood, and touches of art deco style harken the tradition of New York City oyster bars, the cultural home of a dozen on the half-shell.
Yet, the menu at Humboldt Provisions is anything but traditional; selections include the Humboldt Hottie, a raw oyster served with fiery Emerald Hot Sauce and the Local Fresh, a broiled oyster topped with Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog (a creamy local goat cheese), spinach, and lemon juice. For old-fashioned palates, classic preparations like the Garlic Delight, served with garlic, butter, dill, and pepper and the Traditional, topped with a classic mignonette, can still be had. While eating your way through a half-dozen oysters trimmed out with hyper-local and colorful garnishes is a culinary adventure in itself, Elrite encourages guests to taste and learn about different varieties of oysters. In recent years, Aqua-Rodeo’s specialty has become the Bucksport, a Pacific oyster branded by Elrite to showcase the unique merroir of his corner of Humboldt Bay. Akin to winemakers bottling Pinot Noir distinct because of their particular terroir, merroir is the French concept of recognizing time and place in seafood. For Humboldt locals, Bucksport also refers to a certain section of the Bay, located behind the eponymously named sporting goods store. But the history of Bucksport goes back to the nineteenth century, when settlers arrived in Humboldt and established Bucks Port on the Bay; the small town was later absorbed into Eureka. When talking about Bucksports, Elrite characterizes his oyster as having “a briny burst with a melony finish.” Coast Seafoods has also gotten on board the locavore movement by marketing a new product called Redwood Curtain Kumamotos, combining Humboldt Bay’s unique merrior with America’s favorite oyster, Japanese Kumamotos. Coast Seafood writes that the Redwood Curtain Kumos “maintain the slightly salty, buttery flavor with a melon finish that is a favorite of oyster lovers around the world.”
For those who grew up shucking oysters in Humboldt County—named the Oyster Capital of California by the state legislature in 2009—words like dredging, brant, and Bucksport are familiar. Many locals drive by the Humboldt Bay daily; at some point, most have boated across its waters or at least visited Cafe Marina on Woodley Island. But for tourists, it’s hard to visualize exactly how an oyster farm works until you see and smell it for yourself. As a Bay Area native, when Elrite opened Humboldt Provisions he knew visitors would want to understand how the region produces such incredibly fresh and sustainable seafood, he made oyster farming experiential. Booking tours through Humboldt Provisions, Mazzoti’s (305 F Street, Eureka) or the Aqua-Rodeo Farms website, ticket-holders can hop aboard Elrite’s aluminum, flat-bottomed fishing boat for a tour of Humboldt Bay’s oyster farms. Elrite’s hour long Education Tour ($45) focuses on the processes of oyster farming and the history of the Bay; each participant gets to take three oysters back at Humboldt Provisions to enjoy. A step up, Elrite’s 2-hour Farm Tour ($65) zips passengers across the Bay at a carnival ride speeds, showcasing each of the oyster farms and its unique qualities. If they wear proper boots, participants can disembark at Aqua-Rodeo Farms and personally hand-pick the prettiest three oysters they can find. Not recommending anybody shucks their own without practice, Elrite carefully packs the guest’s oysters in a red-handled cooler to carry back on the short walk from the dock to Humboldt Provisions. Four guests are required to book a tour (with a maximum of six) and children are welcome to enjoy the “Bay-to-Bar” experience. If heading out with Captain Sebastian, be sure to wear sunscreen and warm layers; both are essential for any Humboldt County adventure.
Most travelers make the journey behind the redwood curtain to witness the majestic redwoods and enjoy the North Coast’s artistic and independent culture. Elrite’s tours open another treasure. And every June, the annual Oyster Fest draws 15,000 locals and visitors to Arcata, where all the restaurants in town pitch tents and hawk their best oyster concoctions to the crowd. When he has time, Elrite helps judge the Shuck-and-Swallow contest, a local favorite. For visitors who don’t do bi-valves, the event is also renowned for the selection of microbrews on tap and kid-friendly events like live music, face painting, and interactive art. Arcata Main Street is the proud host of Oyster Fest; the organization reinvests all proceeds from the Zero Waste event back into the community and their mission “to promote Arcata’s identity, economy and cultural spirit.”
Whatever time of year you dip behind the redwood curtain, exploring the region’s beloved oysters is a delicious way to honor Humboldt County’s tradition of sustainability and community.
Nora Mounce is a freelance writer specializing in telling stories about food, wine, recreation, cannabis and community. When not writing, Nora runs a vacation rental in her Victorian home in Eureka, California. Her perfect day includes a run in the redwoods, antique shopping with friends and making a pot homemade soup for dinner. She believes in working to preserve the beauty of Humboldt County by writing about local farms and food, rivers and redwoods, and strength of the community.