Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Oysters of San Francisco Bay?

The Oysters of San Francisco Bay?
What started out as a fairly bright, but fun idea, I thought, Yes, for my Indian Project I will try to find a bushel of the famed extinct Olympia Oyster. Googling “San Francisco Bay Indians Oysters” you get a cursory look the currently accepted theory. The Ostrea-Lurida breed oyster, was eaten as a delicacy by the native California Indians. Story has it, that what little oysters were left in the1840’s was soon consumed by the miner and merchants that flocked to the shore of San Francisco and the California Gold rush. Stories all over the internet support this. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015 states:
 “Two million native oysters have settled on man-made reefs in San Francisco Bay over the past year, marking the first major success in an effort to bring back a species ravaged by human excess, researchers said Thursday.

The reefs, made of mesh bags filled with discarded shells from Drakes Bay Oyster Co., are part of the most comprehensive experiment ever attempted to bring back the nearly extinct Olympia oyster and restore its long-lost reef habitat.” (SFGate-1)

Notice the claim, Native Oyster and the name Olympia Oysters. The article goes on to add some credibility to this project as it states:
“The five-year, $2 million effort, led by the California Coastal Conservancy, is part of the San Francisco Bay Living Shorelines Project, which is testing a variety of oyster and eelgrass restoration projects and assessing their impacts on wildlife, wave action and shoreline erosion.” (SFGate-1)

So, we can deduce that an environmental California agency is actively restoring the near extinct, native Olympia Oyster. Must be factual and absolutely environmentally correct? The mythology continues in other articles, this one from 2012:

“Olympia oysters, known scientifically as Ostrea lurida, once blanketed subtidal regions from Southern California to Southeastern Alaska. The tangy delicacy was a crucial source of food for local Indians long before Europeans arrived in California. The shells were abundant in the many Native American middens discovered around the bay, some dating back 4,000 years.

Early pioneers described the flavor of the tiny mollusks, which are about the size of a 50-cent piece, as "coppery." They were, in fact, a delicacy in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. The Hangtown Fry was created, according to one legend, by a condemned man who ordered the two most expensive items he knew of at the time - oysters and eggs - for his last meal.” (SFGate-2)

But there’s a small historical mystery: the farther back in time you go, the more oyster shell you find, or do you? All these stories reference the forensic analysis of shell mounds and middens that surround the San Francisco Bay. One count has over 460 of the sites locally.  A report issued by Greengo, Robert in 1951, by the University of California Archeological Survey – Department of Anthropology is frequently referenced as proof of the historical presence of native Olympia Oysters in the Indian Shell mounds. Definitive proof of their existence and the Indians consumption.
            Or not.
According to the Greengo report:
A rather distinct characterization is offered for the shellfish fauna of
the Canalilo period which lasted into historic times. The shells are said to
be composed largely of Pecten, Solen, Itilus, Olivella and oyster, while the
most abundantly occurring shellfish were apparently mussels (Rogers, Ibid.,
120, 156-157). (Greengo -12)

Furthermore, Dr. Greengo miss-identifies this oyster:
These layers were composed principally of shells, relatively few of which were
those of the Pacific oyster, (Ostrea lurida). Underlying the top layers were
strata, which differed, "in a lack of white man’s things and in a greater abundance
of Pacific oyster shells."
Greengo is looking a shell mound with the remains of the Pacific Oyster-Crassostrea gigas, a modern Oyster from Japan. He identifies this oyster a Pacific Oyster - Ostrea lurida in error. Later scholars of this report have used the Scientific name Ostrea lurida, referencing it as an Olympia Oyster. At no point in the Greengo report is the word Olympia used. The report suggests oysters were either declining in importance or declining in abundance well before the Gold Rush.

Olympia or Ostrea lurida Oysters
Not a lot of information about the native Californian consumption of oyster is available. In fact, historians and naturalist have very limited information about the health and welfare of San Francisco bay, prior to the gold rush. They assume oyster were plentiful as there is a record of an oyster fishery in the bay, based on the belief that no one would invest in a fishery for a rare species of fish.
Let’s welcome John Stillwell Morgan, head of the Morgan Oyster Company to the story. The shell beds in San Francisco Bay were his companies, they all failed and were abandoned in 1895. These are the Oyster Beds that the California Coastal Conservancy is restoring.
            Reading the following Story in Scientific American by Summer Brennan, Shell Game: there is no such thing as a native California Oyster.  We find that Mr. Morgan brought the Ostrea lurida Oyster from his native New York in the 1840’s. All of his local oyster beds failed, because of the warmer waters of the bay. He in turn succeeded in making his company profitable by growing these oysters in the colder waters of Oregon and Washington, and importing them in San Francisco bay. He would also store them in the bay, to keep them fresh. Unfortunately, these stored Oysters became the target of Robbers, Looters, Pirates and Thieves…but that’s another story!
The artificial reefs on the San Rafael shoreline
This writer has been trying to find an Olympic to dine upon, but has come up empty. I did consider scuba diving by the Richmond refinery docks, where the first regrowth of this oyster has been sighted in 1992.
             I just wanted to treat my classmates and teacher to a delicacy that we could trace to the Native Californians. After everything I read, I think I’ve lost my taste in oyster, because they do not, or ever have been, grown in California!
           

Picture 1 – Wild Olympia Oysters at low tide

Picture 2 – Tadich Grill Hangtown Fry

References:
SFGate-1, November 15, 2013 - 2 million oysters in bay begin restoration effort:  http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/2-million-oysters-in-bay-begin-restoration-effort-4984300.php
SFGate-2, July 6th, 2012 – Once abundant West Coast oysters near extinction: http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Once-abundant-West-Coast-oysters-near-extinction-3689709.php
Greengo, Robert. 1951, University of California Archeological Survey:
 Brennan, Summer, October 2, 2015 - Scientific American, Shell game there is no such-thing as california native oysters:

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