MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of shucking)

NORRIS: That's the sweet sound of oysters being shucked at the Flying Fish restaurant in Seattle, Washington.

(Soundbite of slurping)

NORRIS: And that's the sweet sound of oysters being slurped. Most of these oysters come from oyster farms. The only wild oyster native to the North American West Coast is the Olympia. Once abundant, it's now hard to find. Scientists are turning north to Vancouver Island to study some of the last intact wild Olympia oyster reefs in the world.

David Hyde of member station KUOW reports.

DAVID HYDE: Brian Kingzett is a Canadian shellfish biologist. He's walked nearly every oyster beach in British Columbia. About 15 years ago, Kingzett was exploring a narrow inlet on Vancouver Island when he discovered oyster nirvana.

Mr. BRIAN KINGZETT (Shellfish Biologist): In this particular area we're standing today, in Port Eliza, and just a very few other areas in the coast, we noted these really dense pockets of the native oyster, which is quite unusual because we actually surveyed several thousand beaches.

HYDE: Kingzett is standing on the edge of a freshwater stream with two black bears feeding nearby. Dozens of Olympia oysters glisten in the mud at his boots. They're golden and tiny — about the size of 50-cent coins. And they occupy a solid band on this cobbly beach that starts just above the eel grass in the inlet. The Olympia oyster was at one time abundant on the West Coast and an important food source for bear, otters, as well as coastal tribes.

Mr. KINGZETT: What is really important here is is that this is an animal that, you know, at the turn of the century — 1800s — had extensive distributions from San Francisco all the way up into British Columbia where you, you know, you very rarely find it now in very large amounts, and then suddenly they're gone.

HYDE: So what decimated the Olympia oysters? Kingzett says it started with the California Gold Rush, when commercial harvesters cleared entire beaches up and down the coast.

Mr. KINGZETT: We know that, you know, over-fishing was a problem. We know that they're very sensitive to industrial pollution.

HYDE: Human activities change the chemistry of these waters, destroying wild reefs. In Puget Sound in Washington State, wild Olympia oyster harvest has declined from the peak of more than 200 million oysters a year to nearly zero. Globally, all species of wild oysters have declined by more than 90 percent.

But on this trip, scientists documented the fact that this remote inlet has the highest known density of wild Olympia oysters in the world. They say this bed is as healthy as it was hundreds of years ago. And it's so robust, it's drawn scientists from all over the U.S. and Canada.

Joth Davis is a shellfish biologist from Puget Sound.

Mr. JOTH DAVIS (Shellfish Biologist): What I'm doing here is digging the veneer of oysters in rocks away from the underlying sediment and I'm putting a quarrying device, see, into the ground. Take a core of the sediment under the veneer of oysters in small rocks.

HYDE: Davis says understanding these intact wild beds will help restore Olympia oysters elsewhere.

Mr. DAVIS: There are lots of oysters here. And the question I have - the ultimate question I have and what I would like to pass on to my children is, we need to try to understand how and why these beds retain their longevity. How do they persist? And that, to me, is going to be the ultimate challenge.

HYDE: Davis thinks the pristine streams flowing down from the forest above onto the oyster beach may hold the key.

Mr. DAVIS: There is nothing but trees and undisturbed watershed on this particular beach which is very rich in native oysters.

HYDE: Davis works with an organization that's trying to bring wild Olympias back in Washington State despite ongoing pollution problems. They're seeing sites with young oysters and setting down old oyster shells to give the Olympias a place to grow.

Similar programs to restore wild oysters are gaining momentum on both coasts in North America. And at least now, they're got a blueprint to show them where they want to go.

For NPR News, I'm David Hyde.

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