Olympia oysters were long ago harvested to the point of near-extinction. Taking their place was the bigger, faster-growing Pacific oyster, introduced from Japan in 1902.
A little-known research station in Manchester is working to restore not only the Olympia oyster’s rightful place in the sound, but a host of other sea creatures.
Tucked between Manchester State Park and a Navy fuel station, the Manchester Research Station is an unassuming collection of white, mostly windowless buildings. Inside are a heck of a lot of tanks – tanks with big, thrashing chinook salmon, tanks with black cod swimming in frigid, green-tinted water, and tanks with pebble-sized Olympia oyster babies waiting to repopulate beaches around the sound.
The station is a collaborative place, with scientists from nonprofit groups, universities and federal agencies working alongside each other on various research projects. About two-thirds of the 30 people working there are with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
First up on the tour: big outdoor bathtubs loaded with red seaweed. Rather than a science experiment, this part of the station is more of a farm. A Seattle entrepreneur turns the seaweed into jells, moisturizers and soaps for a skin care line. We had a story about the business in 2011. Read it here.
“I’m actually 120 years old,” Berejikian joked. “I use the face cream every day.”
Across from the seaweed baths is the Olympia oyster hatchery. Run by Bainbridge Island-based Puget Sound Restoration Fund, the hatchery produces tens of thousands of oysters for 19 restoration sites around the sound.
PSRF’s Stuart Ryan has had a taste of the rare natives.
“They have a very distinct taste,” he said. “They’re brinier, slightly metallic – but in a good way, not a bad way.”
Alongside the oyster hatchery is a NOAA project that’s trying to figure out a way to raise black cod (sablefish) in commercial fish farms.
Unlike Atlantic salmon, which are grown commercially in net pens within view of the lab, the cod are native to the sound. Their numbers have declined due to habitat loss, fishing and other factors. NOAA believes the farmed fish could have a strong market in Asia.
NOAA’s rearing tanks are pitch black and very cold to replicate black cod’s natural environment. NOAA tints the water green to help the fish see their feed (apparently, young cod turn to cannibalism if they’re not fed well).
Female black cod are preferred. They grow faster with less food, making them more profitable than males.
One of the largest buildings at the lab is one marked “Salmon Culture.” Built by the Bonneville Power Administration to mitigate the impact of dams on the Snake River, the building is full of tanks for several salmon-rearing projects.
A really interesting one is tied to the Redfish Lake sockeye. This central Idaho run almost went extinct, with only 16 adults returning to the lake during the 1990s.
“These fish were very close to winking out,” said NOAA’s Des Maynard.
Thanks to Redfish Lake sockeye reared at the Manchester station, the run now tops 1,000 fish.
Also raised here were Elwha River pink salmon before the dam removal project.
“There was concern that the silt (held behind the dams) would smother their eggs when it came down,” Maynard said. “He raised some here as a safety net.”
Last on the tour was what Berejikian likes to call “the phony river.” It’s an artificial river, with rocks and branches tossed in, where scientists run various experiments. Lately, they’ve used the river to test how much hatchery salmon compete with wild fish for food and territory.
For more about the Manchester Research Station, head over here.