Oysters have been an important resource in Washington state since the mid 1800s and are intimately associated with recent history of the Willapa Bay estuary, just as they have defined social culture around much larger U.S. east coast systems. The Willapa Bay oyster reserves were set aside in 1890 to preserve stocks of the native oyster Ostrea lurida in this estuary, but these stocks were overfished and replaced with the introduced Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas during the late 1920s. Pacific oysters have spawned and set naturally in this estuary on a fairly regular basis since that time, and have formed the basis of a sustainable fishery established on state oyster reserves. The fishery is managed as an annual sale of oysters to private aquaculture interests. Oysters are harvested mostly by hand from intertidal tracts, usually moved to better growing areas closer to the estuary mouth, and shell is required to be returned to the reserves to perpetuate the fishery. Although oyster harvest for human consumption will remain an important social management goal, these bivalves have been shown to provide a suite of other ecosystem functions and services. A survey of the reserves suggests that they represent 11.2% of the intertidal habitat in Willapa Bay and cover substantial subtidal areas as well. A comparison with historical maps suggests that most of the low intertidal area in the reserves formerly populated by native oysters is now covered primarily with eelgrass (Zostera marina), which potentially serves as important habitat for numerous other organisms, including juvenile salmon, Dungeness crab, and migratory waterfowl like black Brant. Native oysters can still potentially be restored to some of these areas, but the value of both introduced oysters and eelgrass as habitat and ecosystem engineers also deserves attention, and the reserves provide an excellent place to elucidate the role of these additional conservation targets at the landscape scale.
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