Earth Island Journal Magazine

View live story on Earth Island Journal Magazine's website.

Using Nonnative Oysters to Help Restore Native Oysters in the Puget Sound

The rubber boots are essential to our endeavor. Mud paints them brown as we squelch our way to the oyster purses; mesh tent-shaped baskets. My family stays on the purses’ edge — any deeper and we risk sinking to our knees — and we pick out our dinner.

The chosen oysters are medium-sized, less stubborn to shuck and best served on the half shell. As much as we prize our bivalves, they aren’t of this place. In fact, 98 percent of oysters farmed in Washington State last year were nonnative Pacific oysters.

The state’s only native oyster — the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida/conchaphila), which is the only oyster native to the West Coast and once thrived along coastlines from Southeast Alaska to Baja, California — has stayed out of the shellfish farming limelight for years now. But new restoration efforts using nonnative Pacific oyster shells are making the little Olympia oyster mighty again.

Shorter than your thumb, equipped with an abnormally thin shell, Olympia oysters, called “Kloch Kloch” by Native Americans, are less hardy than their nonnative counterparts. They are happiest in the intertidal zone, submerged and insulated from extreme temperatures until low tide. A hundred years ago they covered up to 20,000 acres in Washington waters, but were driven to near depletion in the 1900s from overharvesting and pollution from paper mills that dumped their toxic effluents, including bleaching agents, into local waters. Today, only 5 percent of their historic beds remain, mostly in protected coves and bays of the southern Puget Sound.

The mainstay of Washington State's oyster industry these days is the much larger Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), first introduced from Japan in 1902 for commercial harvesting.

Though normally a competitor for habitat in the wild, Pacific oyster shell can provide a desirable new home for wandering Olympia oyster larvae. "Oyster shells send out a particular chemical signal that's recognized as 'oyster' by larvae," explains Betsy Peabody, founder and executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF).

PSRF has been working since 2010 to restore 100 acres of native oyster habitat in Washington by 2020. To date, the organization has restored between 50 to 60 acres, but not for farming purposes, Peabody says. They are working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to act on Governor Jay Inslee’s 2011 National Shellfish Initiative, which focuses on 19 priority areas in the Puget Sound for restoration.

In areas with natural larval production where there isn’t enough habitat for oyster beds to develop, PSRF spreads Pacific oyster shells to provide a settlement structure that enables larvae to naturally recolonize. Young Olympia oysters, called spat, attach themselves to these shells and begin the slow process of growing to maturity, which can take up to three years. In areas where remnant populations are depressed or absent, PSRF spreads oyster seed developed in hatcheries. In some areas, PSRF combines both strategies in order to speed up oyster recolonization.

However, Pacific oyster shells aren’t used willy-nilly for oyster restoration. There are stringent restrictions on where the restorative Pacific oyster shells can be sourced from in order to avoid spreading disease, says Brady Blake, a shellfish biologist with WDFW. Bringing shells in from restaurant recycling programs is strictly off-limits.

Native Olympia oysters don’t always get the hint that they should settle on Pacific oyster shells, though. Dr. Jennifer Ruesink is a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in Olympia oyster research and habitat competition from invasive species. Ruesink explains that Pacific oysters are doing so well in some areas that Olympia oyster larvae aren’t able to compete.

Despite their best efforts to restore Olympia oysters in Port Gamble Bay, for example, Pacifics dominated. A similar problem exists in Willapa Bay. Ruesink says there are plenty of native larvae in the waters, but they just end up settling in places where they are not able to survive. Restoration could mean removing Pacific oyster shells from this non-survivable area so the native larvae aren’t receiving mixed signals.

The flip side of this is that native oysters are settling in Willapa Bay, just not where they have historically thrived, Ruesink says. “We’re left wondering what goals we really want to get to in terms of restoration.”

Restoration of this native species really comes down to the restoration teams’ end goals. For some researchers, restoration is about understanding if this native species could ever thrive the same way it did a hundred years ago. The Olympia oyster is seen by many as crucial to restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem — as filter feeders, each oyster can clean up to 12 gallons of water a day of sediment and excess nutrients. Oyster reefs also provide shelter for crustaceans and microorganisms that are food for fish like juvenile salmon and herring.

But, as Ruesink says, “people have different opinions about the best way to restore and the primary goals of restoration. And that diversity is okay as people learn what works and what doesn’t.”

Some researchers think that Pacific oyster shell is unnatural and shouldn’t be used for restoration purposes, as the shells stick around for a long time after they are spread. Ruesink sums up the argument she’s heard as: “You can’t really get back a [historic] native oyster bed because it’s full of these big shells.”

However, if restoration is meant for replenishing a native species, researchers and restoration teams have already learned a lot. In some areas predators pose a threat for young, settled oysters, Ruesink says. In Lynch Cove off of Hood Canal, her research team saw evidence of oyster drills (snails) and, surprisingly, small sea stars making a meal out of juvenile oysters.

For Peabody and PSRF, the end goal of restoring 100 acres of native oyster habitat by 2020 would be impossible without collaboration across the Sound from organizations and tideland owners. As Washington is the only state where tideland can be privately owned, cooperation from these individuals has been imperative, Peabody says.

And Olympia oyster restoration isn’t just a Washington effort. In California, researchers are more flexible in considering suitable surfaces for oyster restoration and the state even has a new law advocating the planting of eelgrass next to other shellfish to prevent ocean acidification.

Though Olympia oyster populations are much more stable now, thanks to all of the conservation work, they are still protected from harvest on public tidelands in Washington. Since they are not easy to identify — to many harvesters they just look like small Pacific oysters — the state has set the legal minimum size for oysters that can be harvested on public beaches at 2.5 inches (Olympia oysters almost never reach that size).

However, if you are interested in having a taste, these oysters are still farmed commercially in some parts of the state and can be found in several local oyster bars when in season. And if visiting a shellfish farm is of interest, don’t forget the rubber boots; no one gets far without them.


Published March 7, 2017

Covington-Maple Valley Reporter

View live story on Covington-Maple Valley Reporter's website.

Lessons learned from a Covington raven

Suk is unaware that he is a raven. His five thousand iridescent black feathers look similar to an oil slick, with hues of deep blue and purple caught in the overcast light.

These feathers repel the drizzle, sending the droplets rolling. He is larger than a crow, smaller than a barn owl. And yet — he doesn’t know.

“I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m his mate.” Michael Cunningham said as Suk rifled through his shirt pocket for mealworms. Suk trusts only a few humans, and Cunningham is one of them.

Suk is an educational raven. He arrived in his new Covington home a little over six months ago and has taught multiple small groups about wildlife conservation, the intricacies of ravens and Pacific Northwest native culture.

When he was a baby, Suk imprinted on humans. In this critical, post-hatching period, birds acquire behavioral characteristics from their parent and surroundings.

“Just like in the cartoons, first thing they see, it’s, ‘Mama!’ If it’s a dog, they think they’re a dog for the rest of their lives.” Cunningham said.

Ravens come out of the egg blind and rely solely on sound. If that sound is a human voice, the raven thinks it should sound like a human. Once its eyes open, the raven begins to imprint on whatever — or whoever — it sees. And once a bird has imprinted, it’s impossible to reverse. This is likely the reason Suk doesn’t know the quintessential ork raven call.

Suk happens to be friends with two resident wild ravens who are teaching the teacher. Cunningham’s expression saddened as he recalled the first time these ravens visited. “Suk… he didn’t know. He was like, ‘What are you birds doing here? I’m a person.’ Sometimes he can sound like a raven, but a lot of the time he sounds more (like a crow.) I think I actually cried when he couldn’t respond to their calls. If I ever had doubts that he had imprinted on people, those are gone now.”

They now visit Suk almost every day. Because of this, Cunningham said Suk is beginning to sound more raven-like, and learning the language.

For both Suk and Cunningham, getting to this point has been a lengthy journey. “The law says if a bird has been imprinted (on humans), you either have to euthanize it, or go through the process to get an educational permit.” Cunningham said. “(About) 99 times out of 100 they euthanize it, just because they have a limited number of educational places.”

And so, the fight to save Suk began. Cunningham was one of the volunteers at Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington who first received Suk. The center received a phone call from Tacoma reporting a starving, lost baby bird in their backyard. When volunteers brought baby Suk in, it turned out he was fearless around people — a sure-sign he illegally imprinted on humans.

Cunningham and several volunteers insisted Suk could easily educate the public about conservation and wildlife. After all, Cunningham argued, ravens are smarter than a chimpanzee. For a short period of time, Suk became part of the educational program at Sarvey. During this time, the Tulalip Tribe ceremoniously named him “Sak’alus,” Lushootseed for “flying colors.” Though he goes by his nickname, Cunningham hung the naming ribbons outside his Covington aviary.

As Suk grew, he showed preference to certain volunteers, and was severely unkind to just about everyone else. His trust was not easily earned, and he used his beak and talons to show it.

Educational permit at stake, Michael drove to Cascade Raptor Center in Eugene to get a second opinion. Since Suk was physically healthy, it was suggested he become part of a free-flight educational program. Suk traveled again, this time all the way to World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Suk’s preferential personality ended up being his downfall in St. Louis, too. When Cunningham found out the situation, he knew Suk was down to his last chance. “No one’s going to want a bird that’s been passed around from place to place.” He said.

Cunningham decided to apply for the state and federal educational permits necessary to bring Suk home. The process was extensive. In addition to a built, inspected and approved facility, Cunningham needed plans in place. “You have to have your training plan, presentation plan and essentially what you’re going to do to make the world a better place with this educational animal.”

The aviary Cunningham built is massive. Several quail skulls line the outside edge — the remnants of Suk’s meals. Ravens create pellets, similar to owls. Their natural diet includes traces of fur, feathers and bones, and often the raven will cache meal scraps for later. Suk utilizes some large bark pieces for this, leaving a smaller wood chip on top as his marker.

Natural wood branches hang from the mesh top of the aviary and the wood covered shelter in the back provides Suk protection from the elements and the many critters that wander the backyard. Positioned on the back edge of nearly two acres of wooded forest, Cunningham’s “trail cam” has shown footage of bobcats and deer cruising through the yard. Suk also has a small pool in this covered area, which Cunningham plans to turn into a running water feature.

However, Cunningham’s future hopes are much bigger than a water feature for Suk.

“My dream is to start my own facility.” Cunningham expressed. “Someday I’d like to have a joint facility that is wildlife rescue rehab and PTSD treatment.”

Suk’s story has a happy ending, but many wild animals don’t get the same chance, Cunningham said. Not only is it illegal to take wildlife in, but further harm could also be done. The best thing someone can do when they find an injured animal is to call a wildlife responder. And after rehabilitation, rehabilitation centers often can release the animal near where it was found.

More than anything, Cunningham hopes Suk teaches people that wildlife needs to stay wild.


Published January 26, 2017

Alaska Magazine

Published in the February 2012 edition of Alaska Magazine.

Memories of my Grandfather

Pride wells up in me as I clip the pale pink M/V Malaspina Visitor Pass No. 5 to my jeans pocket. I shake hands with Capt. Mark Sundt and, as he show me around his ship, my pride grows. Each time Sundt introduces me to a crewmember, their faces light up with surprise and pleasure.

“This is Carly Vester, Capt. Ron Kutz’s granddaughter,” he says formally, pausing to let me see the recognition in their faces.

Some knew my grandfather, some knew of the legacy he left in Alaska and the Alaska Marine Highway System, and all are warm, welcoming and happy to have me on board. I feel like I belong here.

My grandfather, Ronald Kutz, began his maritime career in 1948 on the Washington state ferries. In 1963, he hired on with the Alaska state ferries. When Alaska bought the Stena Britannica from Sweden in 1968, my grandfather and a skeleton crew of Swedes saw the ship through the Panama Canal to San Diego and up the West Coast to Alaska. This ship, renamed the M/V Wickersham, joined the trio of ships that launched the Alaska Marine Highway System. In 1974, a fourth ship, the M/V Columbia, was added to the fleet, and my grandfather became its first captain, navigating it through Alaskan, Canadian and Washington waters until his retirement in 1987.

Ships were still in his blood, though, and after my grandfather retired, he became a sea pilot and a summer cruise-ship captain until the 1990s. He and my grandmother were building their retirement house with a view of the ferry terminal in Kingston, Wash., when he died in 2002. Though I was only 10 at the time, I remember his memorial service befitted a captain, honoring his life as a husband, father and friend, as well as a ship’s captain.

As Sundt shows me around the Malaspina, I come to understand that, although passengers rarely see their captain, the men and women who guide the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries—my grandfather, Sundt and their colleagues, past and present—hold the lives of the passengers in their hands. A captain, Sundt says, must always focus on the task at hand and be ready to react in an emergency. Every captain needs the confidence to run a ship, he tells me, and that often comes from watching those who came before them maneuver through tough spots. Sundt learned under the wind of my grandfather, who, Sundt tells me, once turned the 418-foot Columbia around in the narrow Peril Straits to avoid a tugboat and its tow. My grandfather was always cool under pressure, Sundt says, and he never let the passengers or crew see him panic.

“With this profession there are no do-overs,” he explains. “It’s not like you hit the reset button on a video game. You’re the mast of the ship, next to God, because the safety of all the passengers rests on the decisions that the captain makes.”

The tour of the Malaspina creates for me not only a sense of pride, but also a sense of loss. Because my grandfather died when I was so young, I never really got to know him, nor did I get to see the side of him that the Malaspina crew did. As a child, I knew my grandfather as a gruff, intimidating figure. Yet one of my most prominent memories is of him showing my older brother and me the room we would sleep in when we visited. I remember how he pointed at the ceiling and told us he was going to get glow-in-the-dark paint and put the entire solar system on the ceiling for us to see before we went to sleep. He was gruff, but he was caring. And, from the ferry workers, I hear he had a wicked sense of humor.

The marine highway is part of the lifeblood of Southeast Alaska. In summer, it is crowded with visitors, but the rest of the year its passengers are mostly locals: families traveling to nearby towns or to the Lower 48; high school students on their way to basketball games or other events in the Pandhandle communities.

As I tour the ship, I am reminded of my conversation a few days earlier with Kristy Totten. Totten has been a passenger on the ferry system for 31 years, since she moved from Colorado to Ketchikan for a teaching job.

Totten told me she has many fond memories made on the ferries, traveling with friends and students. Once, she said, on a ferry just outside of Sitka, a call came in for a principal. There was an emergency at his school.

“The ferry system actually stopped the boat and the U.S. Coast Guard came and picked him up—it was amazing,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine a commercial airliner making such an accommodation for a passenger.

As I continue my tour around the ship with Sundt, I learn more of what it takes to be part of this crew and more about the grandfather I never really got to know.

It takes dedication, Sundt says, to lead a ferry system life, with its days and weeks away from home. He says he’s lucky to have an understanding wife and son, and to have the best of both worlds: time on the water and time with his family.

The same was true for my grandfather. In my grandmother, he had an accommodating and supportive spouse. They married young and stayed married for more than 50 years, raising three children while he was often away; it’s a testament to their strong bond that they were able to make it work so well for so long.

Before I left the Malaspina, Sundt put me in touch with a good friend and former colleague of my grandfather, Capt. Erv Hagerup. Hagerup began working on the ferry system in 1966 and retired in 2001, spending his last 20 years as a captain. I ask him to tel me more about my grandfather and his life on the ferries.

In the course of the conversation, Hagerup tells me it doesn’t matter how long you serve or how high your rank, when you end your time on the Marine Highway ships, you will have made a big splash or a little one, but a splash is inevitable either way.

My grandfather made a big splash, and that makes me proud.

From my time spent with Sundt and the conversations I had with many crewmembers ad passengers of the Alaska Marine Highway System, I feel a stronger connection to not only my grandfather, but also to this newly discovered ferry family. I now know another side of my grandfather and feel almost as though I finally got a chance to have an adult conversation with him.

I am proud to be a part of the Alaska Marine Highway System family and, most of all, proud to be the granddaughter of Capt. Ron Kutz.