Film details struggles, challenges of family that built an oyster business

Patrick Yamashita talks to his father, Jerry Yamashita, and about family history while cooking oysters at Burley Lagoon.
Patrick Yamashita talks to his father, Jerry Yamashita, and about family history while cooking oysters at Burley Lagoon. Courtesy

When the native Olympia oyster all but disappeared, a victim of overharvesting and water pollution, immigrants from Japan came to the rescue.

The story of those newcomers — oysters and humans — is told in “Ebb and Flow,” screening Sunday in Olympia. The documentary sold out its two Seattle screenings, with much of the interest centering on the immigrants’ successes and struggles, including incarceration in internment camps during World War II.

“It’s a really emotional story,” said filmmaker Shelly Solomon of Nordland, who made the film with husband Kent Cornwell.

The film began as a tribute to retired oysterman Jerry Yamashita, 94, of Seattle, whose Henderson Inlet oyster farm was bought by the Nisqually Indian Tribe in 2010.

“We were doing an oyster story about a beloved person,” Solomon said. “But Jerry didn’t really want to talk about himself. He kept talking about his father and these different things that his father did.”

Masahide Yamashita, who came to the United States in 1902 at the age of 19, played a pivotal role in establishing the Pacific oyster in Washington in the 1930s. He found ways to shorten the oysters’ journey from Japan and formed a cooperative of Japanese growers that set a consistent price.

“It pulled people out of poverty,” Solomon said. “He was considered a hero in Japan.”

In the United States, though, Yamashita faced discrimination. Under the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, he was denied citizenship. When World War II broke out, he was confined to an internment camp.

At first, Jerry Yamashita and the rest of the family tried to maintain the business. When he tried to stop a man from stealing oysters, Yamashita says in the film, “He said, ‘You won’t be around much longer, anyway.’ It was a sad time.”

That was true. The entire family was confined for several years in a camp in Tule Lake, California, and had to struggle to rebuild the oyster business after the war.

It was then that the oysters, formerly known as Japanese oysters, were renamed Pacific oysters.

By whatever name, they’ve been a success. They’re the most widely cultivated oysters in Washington and along the West Coast, according to the Pacific Shellfish Institute.

They’re also regarded as the most delicious.

In the film, Elliott Bay Oyster House executive chef Robert Spaulding describes tasting oysters from all over the country at a festival in Alabama. “Everybody there — chefs, food writers, food critics — was in agreement that the Pacific oyster was by the far the best,” he said. “Just amazing oysters.”

Although introducing a nonnative species isn’t considered an environmentally friendly choice, the Pacific oyster has helped the environment by cleaning Puget Sound. Oysters filter water as they feed, and each can clean up to 50 gallons a day.

These days, the shells of Pacific oysters are being used in efforts to restore the native Olympia oyster. The shells provide a sturdy structure on which the larvae of the smaller and more fragile Olympia oysters can grow. “It’s unheard of for a nonnative species to help in the recovery of a native species,” Solomon said.

“This is an immigrant family that helped to build America and an immigrant oyster that’s helping in recovery efforts,” she said.

‘Ebb and Flow’ screening and reception

What: The documentary about the Yamashita family’s role in the shellfish industry. The screening will be followed by a reception featuring oysters and other food prepared by chef Xinh Dwelley, along with organic wine.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.

How much: $27; $22 for seniors, students and military; $17 for youths.

Information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org, bit.ly/2neWO6r.