TIDAL LIFE | What we talk about when we talk about Puget Sound

The food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote: “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”

If you eliminate all the complexities of politics and special interests, taking care of the Sound is about having enough to eat.

We are engaged in sharing food — salmon, oysters, clams and mussels. And not only with our Puget Sound neighbors. Due to celebrity chefs, globalization and the seafood industry’s need to capture “market share,” we’re sharing with the world. Orcas, Dahl’s porpoise, starfish, seals, otters and osprey also rely on that same source. It’s called the food web; we’re part of it, and we do take it lightly because we’re at the top.

Ms. Fisher also wrote: “When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and it is all one.”

Taking care of our food sources in whatever ways we can directly benefits our well being and the well being of those we love. That benefit may not be immediate.

I’ve been reading “The Living Shore,” a history of our native Olympia oyster. The Olympia was virtually wiped out by the appetites of one group of people ­— the Forty-Niners. After silt from hydraulic mining smothered oysters in San Francisco Bay, ships sailed up the coast and hauled back tons of shellfish from Oregon and Washington to keep the influx of miners fed. By 1880 it was all over. Displaced by the Pacific Oyster, Olympias now exist only in isolated pockets.

To listen to the news is to believe that only one kind of fish swims in these waters — salmon. In reality there are rockfish, perch, flounder, eel, blenny, midshipman and more. We focus faddishly on one species until it’s wiped out, then move on to the next.

In the past few years the Pinto Abalone has been the shellfish du jour, now it’s all but gone. If we were to learn to temper our appetites and to enjoy some of the backdrop characters, no rock-star species need be harvested beyond its ability to reproduce.

On my cookbook shelf is a dog-eared copy of “Edible? Incredible!,” a little book full of directions for catching and cooking things like sea cucumber. It’s been my companion on many a dive trip. Written in the ’70s, the recipes tend toward the roll-in-flour-and-fry method. It’s also behind the times ­— the author was big on abalone.

My grandfather grew up in a Hudson’s Bay trading post in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, speaking the Chinook trading language and running amok in the woods. He often quoted the Tlingit saying, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” In those days, a young man spent summers collecting food for canning, drying and pickling rather than skim-boarding. Grandpa told of tying one end of a rope to a canoe and the other around his waist and wading around the island tossing oysters, crabs and mussels into the boat. This, not a vacation at Disneyland, was his treasured memory.

Of course, those good old days in maritime B.C. were difficult and limited. Disneyland didn’t exist, getting as far as Vancouver meant a week-long trek, and if all hands weren’t busy storing food all summer the family would starve. No one knew how important it was to throw oyster shells back in the water to support juvenile oysters, or that bivalves hold the beach in place and filter the water. Shell middens attesting to that fact line the coast. Shellfish was so plentiful that if anyone had insisted on such a stupid waste of time and manpower, they’d have been laughed off the island.

These days we still like to call the people who want us to protect species and eco-systems, regardless of their commercial potential, crazy. But here’s a story that brings it all home.

Teri King of Washington Sea Grant runs a program called State of the Oyster Study. Each spring, folks bring shellfish from their property for testing. Teri tells of one homeowner who was planning to serve oysters at a party. The fecal coliform levels in his sample were off the chart, so Teri arranged to visit his property to investigate the problem.

Finding nothing that pointed to the pollution source, puzzled, and saddened that the man couldn’t enjoy shellfish off his own beach, Teri was about to leave when the neighbor came out of her house and began vigorously hosing down her beachside deck. Teri asked what she was doing and learned that her dogs stayed on the deck while she was at work, and she cleaned their feces off every evening. Neither neighbor had ever thought a thing about it.

Scoop the poop, or it might be what’s for dinner.

For more information:

State of the Oyster Study – http://www.wsg.washington.edu/mas/resources/shellfish.html

“The Living Shore” by Rowan Jacobsen is available through Sno-Isle Libraries

“Edible? Incredible!” by Marjorie Furlong is available through used book stores.

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