ANACORTES — Walking into the mudflats of Fidalgo Bay at low tide, boots sticking with each step, Paul Dinnel points out a dark purple object about the size of a potato chip.
It's a growing Olympia oyster, a once-abundant native shellfish species that Dinnel, a retired marine scientist, is helping bring back to these waters.
He spots one every few steps in some soft, muddy areas. In another area amid the jagged landscape of hundreds of non-native Pacific oyster shells, he finds a dozen Olympia oysters clinging to one shell.
"There have been some substantial changes," Dinnel said. "There weren't any to begin with and now there are millions out there."
Dinnel is the project lead for an effort the Skagit Marine Resources Committee launched in 2002 to restore the Olympia oyster to Fidalgo Bay. The bay is one of several sites in the Puget Sound region that have been deemed by the state as priority restoration areas.
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Northwest Straits Initiative, a branch of which oversees the seven marine resource committees in the region, have called the Fidalgo Bay effort a success.
"It's been a marvelous site to watch evolve in just over a decade," Fish & Wildlife shellfish biologist Brady Blake said. "It's exceeded my expectations for what the oysters would do."
Over the course of the project, about 1.5 million Olympia oysters put into the bay have grown to 4.8 million, according to a draft report by Dinnel that sums up the last four years of the effort.
The bulk of the growth is credited to the addition of 2.5 acres of empty Pacific oyster shells at four sites around March Point in 2013, which provided baby Olympia oysters with places to settle and start growing shells of their own after leaving their parents and catching a ride in the water.
Because of the success of the oysters at the shell sites, project partners are considering adding Pacific oyster shells to other areas, which could help the Olympia oyster population expand.
An important species
Bringing back the Olympia oyster is an attempt to restore a native species that played an important role in the marine ecosystem and in the culture of tribal communities.
It is the only oyster native to the West Coast, and was once found from the Baja peninsula in Mexico, to Sitka, Alaska, according to Fish & Wildlife. It historically had a large presence in Puget Sound.
"It's great to have these native oysters restored," said Bill Taylor, owner of Taylor Shellfish Farms which grows shellfish in Samish Bay and other parts of Puget Sound, and was one of the early participants in the Olympia oyster effort. "It shows that our estuaries are getting healthy."
The Olympia oyster declined in the early 1900s, following an uptick in harvesting combined with pollution from developments such as waterfront mills.
Eventually commercial shellfish operations in the area started importing and growing the more resilient Pacific oyster.
Area tribes including the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Samish Indian Nation have also supported the efforts to bring back the Olympia oysters.
"For millennia, Coast Salish nations could go down to the shore and harvest those resources," said Todd Woodard, director of the Samish tribe's Natural Resource Department. "(The oysters are) culturally and traditionally important to the Samish people."
Woodard said the tribe worked with Dinnel to put shells at the tribe-owned Weaverling Spit mudflats to provide a landing place for baby oysters.
It's important to the tribe to ensure future generations can partake in cultural events such as clam bakes on area beaches in which their ancestors took part.
During clam bakes, shellfish — traditionally including Olympia oysters — are steamed in sand pits lined with fire-heated rocks and covered while they cook.
"It's really rewarding to open that up and bring a plate of (shellfish) to elders who remember their parents cooking that way," Woodard said.
Today, clam bakes are done using commercially-grown oysters. Eventually, the tribe would like to see a strong enough Olympia oyster population to support a harvest.
A new beginning
The Fidalgo Bay project started in 2002 when thousands of baby Olympia oysters were placed beneath the railroad trestle along the Tommy Thompson Trail.
In the years since, more Olympia oysters have been added, and more Pacific oyster shells have been laid on the bay floor.
"If you add some shell habitat in the bay the oysters are coming to it ... Nature is doing it's work, we're just helping it by putting some shell out," Fish & Wildlife's Blake said.
The idea is that as those oysters grow and reproduce, more shells will build up and the oyster beds will expand.
For several years it was hard to say whether the effort was working because few new oysters were found.
That started to change in about 2010. Over the past few years, higher numbers of baby oysters have been found clinging to shells in the bay.
"Just in the last couple of years — last year and this year — we've seen very high settlement of young oysters," Dinnel said.
But the recent growth is just the beginning.
The goal is to eventually have a self-sustaining Olympia oyster population that builds up beds of shell in parts of the bay.
"One of the main reasons for restoring native oyster beds is they form really nice three-dimensional habitat for critters like juvenile salmon, fish that herons like to feed on, places for Dungeness crab to hide," Dinnel said.
Brian Allen, program director for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, said the value of oyster bed habitat is similar to that of eelgrass meadows or coral reefs — they are all havens for some species and feeding grounds for others.
Only about 5 percent of the Olympia oyster beds estimated to have been in the Puget Sound area in the late 1800s remain, Allen said.
While restoration efforts are underway, the Olympia oyster remains designated as a species of concern for the state, according to Fish & Wildlife. That means the species is vulnerable and/or in danger of decline.
Growth and expansion
Dinnel and a team of volunteers continue to monitor for signs of new young Olympia oysters in Fidalgo Bay.
On a sunny day in mid-August, Dinnel and Swinomish environmental specialist Sarah Grossman trudged out, nearly knee-deep in water, along the trestle to collect shells set out in June to catch baby oysters on the move.
Dinnel noted a stark difference between this year and last, when several baby oysters were visible on the shells pulled from the water.
"It doesn't look like we're going to have much settlement this year," he said.
Dinnel found about 4 percent as many oysters as he found the previous year, and at about half the size.
Whether oysters reproduce and whether those babies survive depends on many factors, including weather, water temperature and how much algae is in the water, all of which vary from year to year.
"They're kind of like your apple trees; Some years they're loaded and some years there isn't anything," Dinnel said. "There could be a lot of larvae the next year or two. We'll keep our fingers crossed."
While the oysters have taken hold in parts of the bay, growth has been limited to the east side of Fidalgo Bay. The way the currents move has seemed to prevent baby oysters from moving to the west on their own, Dinnel said.
This spring, Olympia oysters and Pacific oyster shells were placed near the Cap Sante Marina in an attempt to establish a population on the west side of the bay.
Smaller-scale projects are also in progress at other sites, including Padilla and Skagit bays.
In Skagit Bay, the Swinomish tribe is managing Olympia oyster beds placed in lagoons on tribal property at Kiket Island and Lone Tree Point in 2012 as an extension of the marine resources committee project.
"We've been slowly trying to follow in Paul's footsteps, first trying to see if they'll survive in the habitat (in Skagit Bay) and then trying to expand," Grossman said. "They seem to be doing pretty well."
Part of the big picture
Although the work is far from over, the project in Fidalgo Bay is one of the leading examples of Olympia oyster restoration in the region.
"We're very pleased with the results of the Fidalgo Bay project," Puget Sound Restoration Fund's Allen said. "We've taken a very small, postage-stamp population under the trestle and expanded it all the way up to the Crandall Spit. It's really taking off."
The Skagit Marine Resource Committee is one of four working to restore the Olympia oyster in Puget Sound. The Fidalgo Bay project is the largest and longest-running, Northwest Straits Foundation Executive Director Caroline Gibson said.
"They are definitely leading the charge ... on Olympia oyster restoration," she said.
Fish & Wildlife's Olympia oyster restoration plan state's the goal is to have self-sustaining Olympia oyster populations restored by 2022 at 19 sites, including Fidalgo, Padilla, Samish and Similk bays.