Olympia neighbors plant thousands of oyster seeds to help clean up Budd Inlet

Dan Mazur loves planting oyster seeds on Budd Inlet’s shores.

The tiny organisms start out smaller than a thumbnail. After maturing for one to two years, the oysters can grow as big as your hand.

“Oysters don’t seem to care who their neighbors are,” said Mazur, adding that the shellfish love Olympia’s nutrient-rich waters. “Oysters grow great here.”

The ninth-annual East Bay Drive Olympia Harbor Oyster Seed Project takes place Saturday. Project organizer Mazur expects to plant thousands of baby oysters this weekend, bringing the total to 40,000 since August 2012.

Pollution makes the oysters unsafe to eat. All of Budd Inlet south of Burfoot Park is closed for recreational shellfish harvesting because of harmful chemicals in the water, according to the state Department of Health.

Instead of focusing on food, the oyster seed project targets the environment, Mazur said. One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, according to some reports.

Oysters also feed on algal blooms caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, said Bobbi Hudson, executive director of the Pacific Shellfish Institute.

According to the institute, oysters were so abundant along Budd Inlet in the 1800s that people would proclaim, “When the tide is low, the table is set.” Today, the institute is among several partners working to promote local oyster gardening and restoration. Oysters alone may not solve Budd Inlet’s pollution problems, Hudson said, but the Olympia oyster seed project has the right idea.

“It’s a feel-good measure,” she said.

On the muddy banks of East Bay, the oysters soak in hard plastic “grow bags” that surface during low tide. On Thursday morning, Mazur lifted one bag, showing an underside teeming with crabs and sea life. Each colander-like bag contains 100 oysters.

The inconspicuous bags have been planted at several sites around Budd Inlet. One thriving location is the beach next to town homes on Mission Street, where two dozen bags of full-grown oysters are ready for release. Same goes for a dozen bags at West Bay Marina.

“We don’t want to release them too early or seagulls will eat them,” Mazur said as his boots crunched along a layer of barnacles, mussels and clams at low tide on East Bay. “Look at all the shellfish out here.”

The project is one of many sponsored by the East Bay Drive Neighborhood Association to benefit local organizations. The tradition started several years ago with neighborhood resident Kelly Hamilton. For three years, Mazur has taken the reins and has helped spread oysters to other parts of the inlet.

“It gets bigger and bigger every year,” said Richard Wolf, president of the neighborhood association.

The project focuses on the Pacific oyster because of this variety’s durability, Wolf said. Volunteers had tried planting Olympia oysters in the past, he said, but their small size and preference for living in colonies kept the oysters from thriving.

“It’s unfortunate we can’t harvest them,” Wolf said of oysters grown in polluted waters. “But it still does a great job for the bay, and that’s really the point.”