“Oysters are one of the most sustainable, delicious products on the face of the Earth... All we have to do is keep our water clean.” - Steve Seymour, Drayton Harbor Oyster Company
Eating an oyster is a unique food experience, with a distinctive texture and a brine reminiscent of the sea. Since time immemorial, oysters have been a part of our regions’ culture and cuisine. Today in Whatcom County, the journey from the ocean to your plate takes the hard work of recreational harvesters or local oyster farmers. Drayton Harbor Oyster Company is a locally owned oyster farm and restaurant in Blaine, Washington, operated by Steve Seymour and his son Mark. With the oysters cultivated and harvested less than a mile from the shop, there are few dining experiences closer to being from farm-to-table.
Steve didn’t always envision himself as an oyster farmer, nor even a Washingtonian. After attending graduate school at Humboldt State for fisheries, and five years of working in California salmon hatcheries, he and his family moved to Whatcom County in 1977 for a new and exciting job as Director of the Lummi Nation’s Aquaculture program.
“I had no idea where Bellingham was… we came up Chuckanut Drive and that’s when I really started getting excited about this job.” – Steve Seymour, Drayton Harbor Oyster Company
Steve enjoyed 10 years working with Lummi Nation to operate complex salmon and shellfish hatcheries on Lummi Bay and the South Fork of the Nooksack River. In 1991, Steve joined the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to establish and provide technical support to a statewide Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group Program. This was a new initiative which aimed to empower volunteer groups, such as our local Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA), to restore salmon runs in the State. “I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the most amazing staff, volunteers, and landowners on hundreds for projects during my 22 years with the WDFW”. – Steve Seymour Drayton Harbor Oyster Company.
Steve had first put on the oyster boots in 1985, farming oysters in Drayton Harbor and Samish Bay. A few years later Geoff Menzies came aboard. In 1992, Steve and Geoff formed Drayton Harbor Oyster Inc. with high hopes. At about this same time, the Washington Department of Health began increasing its surveillance efforts in Drayton Harbor over growing water quality concerns. Three years later, in 1995, Drayton Harbor was downgraded and closed to shellfish harvesting, ending the fledging company.
Steve turned his attentions to his role with the WDFW, while Geoff, not one to be easily deterred, partnered up with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) to steadfastly drive water quality restoration efforts in Drayton Harbor, over the next ten years. And they succeeded! Today, in 2022, because of the diligent (and sometimes-thankless) efforts of Geoff and the PSRF, about half the bay is approved for shellfish harvest, which we in Whatcom County now get to enjoy. However - “The work is never done. The biggest thing that gives me pause is the water quality. This business is really solid. We have a solid product, we have a solid goal and theme, but this is an urbanizing basin. In the cases of most areas in Puget Sound when you get a lot of city built around the bay, the bay gets lost to shellfish.” – Steve Seymour
After his retirement from the WDFW in 2013, Steve returned to his oyster roots in Drayton Harbor. Geoff was looking to step back from the Drayton Community Supported Aquaculture (Drayton CSA) he was now operating, and Steve was the right person to take the reins. A short time later, Steve brought the “Drayton Harbor Oyster Company LLC” we know today to fruition with the help of a new business partner - his youngest son, Mark. Fast forward to today and DHO is thriving, led by Steve and Mark, supported by a team of 25-30 people, many of whom are young adults learning the paces of farming and food service. DHO now also employs a Community Outreach Biologist, Katherine Garrah, whose primary role is to ensure that the efforts of Geoff and the PRSF aren’t lost, while Mark and Steve aim to do that as well, on top of everything else.
Steve, Kat, and Mark all have a passion for farming oysters in Drayton Harbor. They love the work, the product, and the water. However, oyster cultivation faces many large challenges that are outside of an oyster farmer’s control, including water quality, climate change, and invasive species.
Oysters take up whatever is in the water, including pollutants, chemicals and bacteria. Not all are harmful to oysters or humans, but some are. Of particular concern are fecal coliform bacteria (FC’s). When FC levels reach a certain point, raw oysters are unsafe to eat. When the bacteria levels are really high, they can’t be eaten at all. Drayton Harbor typically has exceptionally clean water and exceptionally low FC numbers, which is what makes this bay so special. However, without monitoring and without an understanding from those in the watershed of the important relationship between the land and the harbor, and the delicate balance marine ecology, FC numbers can rise quickly and be difficult to control.
Fecal coliform bacteria are present in warm blooded animal feces. FC levels are used by health departments to monitor the safety of marine and fresh water. And those feces in the water can come from many different sources, including malfunctioning septic tanks, improper manure applications, unnaturally high concentrations of wildlife, improper pumping of boats or RVs, and pet waste left on the ground to “decompose” (except it gets washed into the harbor...).
“It’s a very fluid environment…We are not necessarily able to track [bacteria sources]. Right now, we are seeing elevated fecal coliforms in the in the harbor, but we don't really know why that is. They could be coming from many different sources. We are trying to .. improve the water quality of the bay without necessarily pointing fingers…Because we all really want good water quality. We want everyone to succeed in what they're investing in. We don't want to hold anyone back, but we have seen that what supports [oyster farming] also supports the [greater] community.” – Kat Garrah
Improving water quality in Drayton Harbor and across Whatcom County has been a team effort over the past 30 years. Many organizations and people have come together to help reduce the risk of contaminants entering our water. Increasing water quality doesn’t just help oysters. It improves human health and habitat for many other animals. However, it is a continual process that we all have to work together to achieve.
“The oysters bring everything full circle. They are the embodiment of all the energy and efforts that have been put into [improving water quality] all these years.” – Kat Garrah, Drayton Harbor Oyster Company
If you love your local oysters, you can make choices that help keep oyster cultivation and a clean harbor thriving. Some easy actions to take are picking up and properly disposing of pet waste, securing your trash and pet food from wild animals, properly maintaining your septic tank, planting native plants, following a farm plan, properly pumping out your boat or RV, and not feeding wild animals. Learn more about the Whatcom Clean Water Program and what you can do to improve water quality and help your local oyster farmers on our website. Together, we can ensure oysters will be enjoyed in our county for many years to come.
This article was written by Alexi Guddal with input from Steve Seymour and Kat Garrah. All photographs are her work. Alexi is the Education and Outreach Specialist for Whatcom Conservation District.