Hakai Magazine

oyster farm under water
As restaurants and bars close, some Washington State shellfish aquaculture operations find themselves with an excess of supply. Photo by divedog/Shutterstock

Who Will Eat All These Oysters?

With the COVID-19 virus challenging the food supply chain, shellfish growers are finding a direct market for their products.

Authored by

by Jen Monnier

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On Sunday, March 15, the Hama Hama oyster farm, in Lilliwaup, Washington, sent its delivery truck up Interstate 5 to deliver mussels, oysters, and clams to the airport to be shipped to restaurants. Then, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced he was shutting down all bars and restaurants in the state to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The delivery truck turned around and brought the shellfish back home. The company was left with hundreds of kilograms of shellfish and no customers.

Meanwhile, panicked citizens were clearing nearby grocery stores out of food and cleaning supplies as they prepared to hunker down for weeks. The people at Hama Hama came up with a plan: they started offering their oysters to the public at a 30 percent discount, and the public answered the call.

In Seattle, Washington, Sonia Yu was scrolling through Facebook when she saw Hama Hama’s post advertising discounted shellfish. Not wanting to risk leaving her home, she placed an online order for an oyster sampler and some clams. For her, it wasn’t just a good deal—she also did it to prop up a local business in need.

Tedi Bolotin in Tacoma, Washington, placed an order for the same reasons. “Shellfish farmers are such a valuable resource to us,” she says. “We have to do all we can.”

“It’s nowhere near the volume or revenue we would have made selling to restaurants,” says Lissa Monberg, Hama Hama’s marketing director. “But just the outpouring of support—people driving up here to buy oysters and clams and ordering online—has been really heartwarming.”

Aquaculture operations in Washington State grew more oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops than any other state in the country in 2013, the most recent year measured. The industry employed nearly 3,000 people and generated about US $150-million.

The coronavirus threatens to bring the industry to a grinding halt, if not for the citizens that continue to support it.

Like many shellfish farms throughout the Pacific Northwest, most of Hama Hama’s revenue comes from restaurant sales. Losing those customers has forced them to lay off employees. It’s the latest ripple effect of the pandemic on the state’s aquaculture industry, which was struggling with tightening margins even before Inslee’s announcement.

For the past few months, as the new coronavirus spread, Washington’s shellfish growers began to lose international markets, says Jennifer Hennessey, the state’s senior policy advisor on ocean health and environment, in a webinar held after the restaurant shutdown.

Some in the industry fear for the future of their farms. With less revenue and fewer employees, or if Inslee orders people to shelter in place, the farms may not be able to keep up with the operations that ensure they’ll have shellfish to sell later on. “If we can’t continue to pre-seed and plant, then we’re in deep trouble for years to come,” says Bill Dewey, the director of public affairs at Taylor Shellfish Farms, headquartered in Shelton, Washington.

Taylor Shellfish operates several restaurants throughout the state and sells shellfish globally. The company has closed its restaurants and laid off more than 200 of roughly 700 employees. Another 178 employees are working reduced hours, with a state unemployment program compensating them for the lost time.

Taylor Shellfish is trying to recoup lost revenue by selling curbside at some of its restaurants and by offering free shipping to people in Washington and most of Oregon and Idaho.

Monberg and Dewey say safety protocols have remained in place on both farms, despite the strain. Dewey says that as of March 17 the Washington State Department of Health assured him it was continuing routine water quality testing so that farms can operate safely.

While the farms have managed to continue producing safe food, they need customers. Many Washingtonians are willing to fill that gap.

If Hama Hama can emerge from the pandemic operational, it hopes to continue selling to community members as well as restaurants. They may have already gained a few loyal customers: Yu says she’s “already planning on buying clams for next week,” and is looking forward to ordering from Hama Hama once the pandemic is over.