Brief Summary

The Olympia oyster, Ostrea lurida, is the only oyster native to the West Coast of the United States. Around the turn of the 20th century, Olympia oysters were heavily harvested from Washington and Oregon for a booming San Francisco market. These small oysters were renowned for their distinctive, coppery flavor. A combination of unsustainable harvest, habitat degradation, pollution, and disease has caused the Olympia oyster population to plummet and remain very low.

Oysters are bivalves, a type of mollusk characterized by two opposing shells, or valves. They are related to clams, mussels, and other commonly known and often edible mollusks. They feed by filtering small particles from seawater. Many oysters, like other bivalves, release sperm and eggs separately in the water, where they meet and fertilize to form embryos outside the body of the mother. But Olympia oysters retain eggs within the mother’s shell. They “brood” their embryos for several weeks before releasing the young, now called larvae, into the water column. All oysters and most bivalves produce larvae, which are generally less than a millimeter in length.  The larvae swim, eat, and develop in the water for several weeks to several months. They then search for a hard surface on which to settle and metamorphose into a juvenile oyster. Once settled, they are cemented to the substrate and remain there for the rest of their lives.

Oysters are important in regulating the health and diversity of the estuarine ecosystem. Because they feed by filtering phytoplankton and bacteria from seawater, a sizeable oyster population can reduce the amount of algae in the bay and help control water quality. The beds that form when oysters settle near each other help stabilize the muddy bottom of the estuary and may improve habitat conditions for eelgrass, an important estuarine plant. The hard, complex surfaces provided by groups of oysters provide a unique habitat in which other estuarine animals can hide, settle, or lay eggs. In this way, a substantial oyster population could increase species diversity. A number of restoration efforts are currently underway to restore Olympia oyster beds along the west coast of the US.

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Ostrea lurida

Olympia oysters and shucking knife for scale

Ostrea lurida, common name the Olympia oyster, after Olympia, Washington in the Puget Sound area, is a species of edible oyster, a marine bivalve mollusk in the family Ostreidae. This species occurs on the northern Pacific coast of North America. Over the years the role of this edible species of oyster has been partly displaced by the cultivation of non-native edible oyster species.

Ostrea lurida is now known to be separate from a similar-appearing species, Ostrea conchaphila, which occurs further south, south of Baja California, in Mexico. Molecular evidence has recently confirmed the separate status of the two species. However, previously, for a period of time, Ostrea lurida was considered to be merely a junior synonym of Ostrea conchaphila.

O. lurida been found in archaeological excavations along the Central California coast of the Pacific Ocean, demonstrating that it was a marine species exploited by the Native American Chumash people.[1]


This bivalve is approximately 6 to 8 centimetres (2.4 to 3.1 in) in length.[2] The shell can be rounded or elongated and is white to purplish black and may be striped with yellow or brown. Unlike most bivalves, the Olympia oyster's shell lacks the periostracum, which is the outermost coating of shell that prevents erosion of the underlying shell. The color of the oyster's flesh is white to a light olive green.

Ostrea lurida oysters lie with their left valve on the substrate, where they are firmly attached. Unlike most bivalves, the oyster does not have a foot in adulthood. They also lack an anterior adductor muscle and do not secrete byssal threads, like mussels do. Olympia oysters, like almost all other bivalves, are filter feeders. This means that they filter their surrounding water and screen out the phytoplankton they feed on. Olympia's filter between 9 to 12 quarts of water each day. This is an essential function to keeping marine waters clean. The oyster beds also provide shelter for anemones, crabs, and other small marine life.

Habitat and distribution[edit]

Ostrea lurida oysters live in bays and estuaries. At slightly higher elevations they will live in areas bordered by mudflats, and in eel grass beds at lower elevation. The oysters attach to the underside of rocks or onto the shells of old oyster beds. Their habitats must have water depths of 0–71 meters, ranging in temperatures of 6-20 degrees Celsius, with a salinity above 25 ppt. However, the oysters can survive in areas with streams that cause a flux in the salinity. This flux will in fact protect them from parasitic flukes, which cannot survive the change in salinity.

This is the oyster species which is native to Puget Sound. The species ranges as far north as Southern Alaska.


The Olympia Oyster spawn between the months of May and August, when the water reaches temperatures above 14 degrees Celsius. During the oyster's first spawning cycle they will act as a male and then switch between sexes during their following spawning cycles. The males release their spermatozoa from their mantle cavity in the form of sperm balls. These balls dissolve in the water into free floating sperm. The female's eggs are fertilized in the mantle cavity (brooding chamber) when spermatozoa are filtered into her gill slits from the surrounding water. The fertilized eggs will then move into the branchial chamber (mantle cavity). The fertilized eggs will develop into veliger larvae and will stay in the females mantle cavity for 10–12 days for further development. On the first day the larvae develop into a blastulae (mass of cells with a center cavity), on day two they develop into a gastrulae (hollow two layered sac), on the third day they develop into trochophore (free-swimming, conciliated larvae), on the fourth day the valves on the dorsal surface become defined. During the rest of development in the brooding chamber the valves complete and a straight-hinged veliger larva grows.

When the spat (larvae) leave the brooding chamber, they begin to develop an eye spot and a foot. They then migrate to hard surfaces (usually old oyster shells) were they attach by secreting a "glue" like substance from their byssus gland. Ostrea lurida spat swim with their foot superior to the rest of their body. This swimming position causes the larvae to attach to the underside of horizontal surfaces.

Brood size is between 250,000-300,000, with larvae around 187 micromillimeters long and eggs around 100–105 micromillimeters in diameter. The amount of larvae produced is dependent on the maternal oyster's size and the amount of reserved nutrients she has at the time of egg fertilization.


The once thriving Olympia Oyster has been endangered by pollution from mills and outboard motors. Highway construction and over-harvesting has also affected their substrate by creating an abundance of silt that smothers the oysters. Over-harvesting also takes away the old shells that spat need to grow on.

The oysters are preyed upon by animals such as sea ducks and rock crabs (Cancer productus). They are also affected by a parasitic red worm (which lives in their anus), the Japanese oyster drill, the slipper shell (which competes for space and food), and shrimp. The ghost and blue shrimp stir up sediment that smothers the oysters.

Decline and return in California[edit]

This species of oyster nearly disappeared from San Francisco Bay following overharvest during the California Gold Rush (1848-50s) and massive silting from hydraulic mining in California's Sierra Nevada (1850s-1880s). California's most valuable fishery from the 1880s-1910s was based on imported Atlantic oysters, not the absent native. But in the 1990s, O. lurida once again appeared in San Francisco Bay near the Chevron Richmond Refinery in Richmond, California.

Restoration efforts[edit]

Species restoration projects for the Olympia oyster funded by the US Government are active in Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay.[3][4] An active restoration project is taking place in Liberty Bay, Washington.[5] This Puget Sound location is the home of an old and new Olympia oyster population. Intertidal areas with native oyster populations or evidence of past populations are strong candidates for re-introduction.[6] The re-establishment of the population is currently threatened by the invasive Japanese oyster drill Ocinebrina inornata. This species preys on the oysters by drilling a hole between the two valves and digesting the oyster's tissues. O. inorata is a threat to the oyster especially in areas with low populations of the mussel Mytilis.

The Nature Conservancy of Oregon also has an ongoing restoration project at Netarts Bay, Oregon.[7]

Status and conservation[edit]

Ostrea lurida populations are much more stable now due to the action of conservancy associations and new laws. These have worked to put a stop to the pollution from mills, and to create restrictions to prevent over-harvesting. During the harvesting seasons, people with permits now have to shuck their oysters on the beach to keep from depleting the oyster beds that the spat grow on.

There is still a market for Olympia Oysters, in which farms commercially grow and sell them. This helps prevent the depletion of the native wild Ostrea lurida.

Use by Native Americans[edit]

Native American peoples consumed this oyster everywhere it was found, with consumption in San Francisco Bay so intense that enormous middens of oyster shells were piled up over thousands of years. One of the largest such mounds, the Emeryville Shellmound, near the mouth of Temescal Creek and the eastern end of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, is now buried under the Bay Street shopping center.[8]

See also[edit]

Line notes[edit]

  1. ^ C.M. Hogan, 2008
  2. ^ Intertidal, 2008
  3. ^ NOAA Awards $150,000 to Restore the Olympia Oyster in Puget Sound, NOAA, October 23, 2003, retrieved 2010-09-11 
  4. ^ Researchers working to restore population of Olympia oysters along California coast, San Jose Mercury News, August 1, 2010, retrieved 2010-09-11 
  5. ^ Recovery of the Olympia Oyster in Kitsap County, United States Department of Agriculture, Spring 2008, retrieved 2010-09-11 
  6. ^ "Reestablishing Olympia Oyster Populations in Puget Sound, Washington". Washington Sea Grant. 
  7. ^ Returning oysters to the bay, The Nature Conservancy, retrieved 2010-09-11 
  8. ^ Emeryville Shellmound, Sacred Sites International Foundation, March 1, 2004, retrieved 2010-09-11 


  • Intertidal Marine Invertebrates of South Puget Sound (2008)
  • C.Michael Hogan (2008) Morro Creek, The Megalithic Portal, ed. by A. Burnham [1]
  • The Nature Concervancy, Initials. (2010). Creating intertiadal habitat for olympia oysters. Retrieved from http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/washington/preserves/art25462.html
  • Couch, D. (1989). Olympia oyster. Biological Report 82, Retrieved from http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/wdb/pub/species_profiles/82_11-124.pdf
  • Ecological Observations on Spawning and Early Larval Development in the Olympia Oyster, A. E. Hopkins, Ecology, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1936), pp. 551–566
  • Attachment of Larvae of the Olympia Oyster, Ostrea Lurida, to Plane Surfaces, A. E. Hopkins, Ecology, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1935), pp. 82–87
  • Spermatogenesis in the California Oyster (Ostrea Lurida), Wesley R. Coe, Biological Bulletin, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Dec., 1931), pp. 309–315
  • Kozloff, E. "Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast" (1983)
  • Kozloff, E. "Marine Invertebrates of the Pacific Northwest" (1974)
  • Pechenik, J. "Biology of the Invertebrates" (2010)
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