When the Tide Goes Out, the Table is Set
History and culture meet social enterprise at the Jamestown Seafood Company in Sequim
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
Kurt Grinnell clips a winch onto a metal box submerged on a platform at the end of a dock on Sequim Bay’s John Wayne Marina. As he raises the box, countless tiny oysters become visible. Grinnell dips a hand in, cradling a few dozen. These half-inch babies look just like their larger counterparts: blue-gray shells tipped with gold. Soon, they’ll be placed on a beach to grow big enough to shuck and slurp.
Kurt and his wife Terri own and operate the Jamestown Seafood Company, which raises oysters, oyster seed, and geoduck in the pristine waters of Sequim Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a collaborative effort with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which for centuries has thrived on the area’s seafood — including its oysters.
Kurt and Terri are bringing that legacy to a new level with Jamestown Seafood. It all starts at the company’s hatchery in Kona, Hawaii, where Jamestown Seafood spawns its oysters.
Why raise oysters some 3,000 miles away? Ocean acidification is to blame, says Kurt. The phenomenon — linked to carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel emissions — has killed billions of oysters in the Northwest since 2005. The ocean absorbs at least a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted, and Washington, Oregon, and California are in particularly dire straits.
This region has more acidic water, due to the way the ocean circulates. Even if emissions were halted altogether, the West Coast’s waters would worsen for decades before seeing any improvement.
Acidic water makes it hard for bivalves like oysters and mussels to form shells. Like Jamestown Seafood, several other Washington State oyster farms have moved hatcheries to Hawaii, where the water is less acidic.
“We can attest to the fact that there are real problems,” Kurt says. “It’s sad, but we’re not the type of folks that give up real easily.”
“Tribal people are forever people,” Terri adds. “We’re never going to leave the land. We’ll always be here.”
Once the Hawaiian-born oysters are big enough to stand up to the Northwest’s corrosive waters — about three millimeters in length — they’re transported to Jamestown Seafood’s Sequim Bay nursery.
Upon reaching a half-inch in diameter, the oysters head in a few different directions: to about 20 other commercial shellfish farms; to neighbors with beach-front property, who come to the marina to collect oysters in small containers; and to Jamestown’s own Sequim Bay operation. Jamestown Seafood will raise about 75 million oysters this year, and they’re continually looking to grow.
That’s because this company is more than just a business for Kurt and Terri.
Kurt, a Jamestown S’Klallam tribal council member, recognized opportunity in the tribe’s oyster farming efforts. A commercial fisher and geoduck diver for many years, Kurt doesn’t have any a background in shellfish farming. But he figured that with Terri’s business background as an accountant and his natural leadership skills, the shellfish operation could be an economic boon to the tribe. Kurt and Terri took over the tribe’s operations in 2011 and are investing their personal resources to develop a robust company that they will eventually turn over to the tribe to manage.
“The more you get to know Kurt, the more you understand his force of will,” says Terri. “He may not know what he’s doing, but he knows where we need to be. He leads the way, and everyone follows along.”
In addition to linking the tribe with its cultural heritage, Jamestown Seafood brings revenue to the tribe and employment to its members. “The Indian way is to figure out seven generations from now,” says Kurt. “We think of our children and our elders, and the rest of us in the middle are just filler, the worker bees. We know we need to leave something behind for our kids. As a tribe, we’re always looking for new enterprises and new jobs for our folks. We look at this as one of our cornerstones.”
“When Kurt and I got into the farming,” Terri adds, “it was about creating economy for the tribe to continue, but also about bringing back native foods to the tribal members.”
After touring the nursery, we drive around the southern end of Sequim Bay to the Jamestown S’Klallam tribal campus, where the council chambers and towering totems overlook the shellfish farming area. It’s near high tide when I visit, so the oysters are out of view.
Jamestown Seafood raises oysters for commercial sale using two different methods. The first involves growing oysters on the sandy bottom of Sequim Bay, resulting in the company’s Sequim Bay Jades; the second involves a tumbled method that results in the Sequim Bay Opals, a deeper cupped oyster. The company also harvests and sells geoduck, raised in Sequim Bay.
Jamestown Seafood’s oysters are currently available at Elliott’s Oyster House, Steelhead Diner, Orfeo, and Blueacre in Seattle, with more on the way.
So far, the Jamestown Seafood oysters have been well-received in area restaurants; Terri and Kurt attribute that to the unique qualities of Sequim Bay. “We’re far from big cities and their pollution,” Kurt says, pointing out that his operation is the farthest Northwest shellfish farm in the state. “That means we have very clean water.”
The tribe also helped with the restoration efforts of Jimmycomelately Creek, which empties into Sequim Bay. With the restoration came the return of crucial salmon habitat that also contributes to the bay’s nutrient content — and to the nutrients that oysters need to thrive.
And if the oysters thrive, so does the tribe.
“We’re a strong people, because when the tide goes out, the table is set,” Kurt says, echoing a common coastal American Indian phrase in the Northwest. “We’re not rich in gold and silver, but we’ve always had plenty to eat. We’re still here today, and we plan on staying here.”
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.