'It's like finding sunken treasure'

"What once was lost, now is found. In South Kitsap.A rare cache of Washington's only indigenous species of oyster - the Olympia oyster - was discovered earlier this spring in Clam Bay near the Manchester Fuel Depot. Once abundant throughout the South Puget Sound region, the small, sweet oysters today are nearly extinct due to overharvesting, changes in substrate and water-quality problems.The oysters used to be found from Sitka (Alaska) to Cabo San Luca (in Mexico), said Betsy Peabody, a spokeswoman for Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is co-sponsoring an effort to rebuild stocks of the shellfish. Now they're scarce everywhere.Puget Sound Restoration Fund, along with the Navy, the Suquamish Tribe, Taylor Shellfish Co., the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and several environmental groups, recruited volunteers from the Seattle-based Institute of Community Leadership to help harvest as many of the oysters as possible for brood stock.The institute, an independent youth agency, provided about two dozen youngsters on May 6. Together with their adult sponsors, the group harvested hundreds of the shellfish, which were shipped to Point Whitney Shellfish Lab, near Hood Canal, to breed.Oysters spawn in warm water, Peabody said. By controlling the temperature of the water they're kept in, you can fool them into spawning more often. And under the protected conditions, with no predators to worry about, the survival rate is also much higher.Peabody said the cache of oysters harvested in Clam Bay will generate thousands of descendants that will eventually be returned to the wild.Plans call for the first group of young oysters to be scattered in local waters Aug. 19.We're constantly trying to locate other beds of the Olympia oyster, Peabody said. But there just aren't many to be found. They prefer warm waters and protected areas, so shallow bays like Clam Bay are perfect. We tried searching a similar spot off Bainbridge Island last weekend and didn't find anything, though.Peabody said her group heard rumors for a while that there were Olympia oysters in Clam Bay, so they contacted Conrad Manhken, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the fuel depot site. He, too, had heard tales of Olympia oysters nearby, so a search was quickly organized.We're just delighted with this discovery, Peabody said. It's like finding sunken treasure."

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