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Enjoy Magazine

Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours in Eureka

09/27/2015 10:26PM ● By Jordan Venema

The World is your Oyster

October 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: James Mazzotta

There's a rugged almost paradoxical charm to California’s North Coast, with its blue-collar roots and Victorian airs. From logging and prospecting to not a few fine breweries, the region has its diverse industries. At the heart of this coast – and its industry – is Humboldt Bay, the largest protected body of water between San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound. But the significance of this bay goes deeper than its waters, which accounts economically for one of the region’s most significant exports: oysters.

Though Humboldt Bay accounts for nearly 70 percent of oysters farmed in California, most Californians haven’t a clue about the source of their bivalves. Nor do they have the same preconceived ideas about farming oysters as they do about mining, logging, brewing or any other kind of farming. For those who haven’t trudged knee-deep in the shallows of Humboldt Bay, the only regular thought given to the briny delicacy is how it tastes when slurped through its half-shell.

That might be true for most Californians, but not Sebastian “Oyster Dude” Elrite, owner of Aqua-Rodeo Farms, a 10-acre oyster farm just off the shore of Arcata. Elrite has worked in the industry since 1992, and like other farmers, has learned to work in cycles – but with the tides, not seasons. His skin is tanned, his blond hair stained by sun and salt: call him a man of the water before a man of the earth.

After so many years, Elrite still loves oysters. “Nah,” how could a person tire of them? he asks with a laugh. “They’re different every time.” And Elrite wants to give others the up-close opportunity to see what goes into farming oysters, and why he never tires of flowing with the tide. The Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours is a two-hour, $75 excursion. It begins at low tide, just east of the Eureka promenade, where Elrite helps passengers step carefully into his boat. Elrite is friendly, down-to-earth, as he answers questions: How is Eureka’s economy growing? When was the new promenade built? What other oysters are grown in the bay?

The boat glides slowly past the privately docked boats, the deep-sea trawlers, the warehouses along the dock, and then speeds into the open bay. “Hold on to your hat,” he says over the engine and wind.

The boat sloshes to a halt, and subtle ripples lap against its hull. The farms and hatcheries surround the boat, partially submerged, almost like Japanese rice gardens. PVC pipes rise from the water like signposts, marking the sunken acreage.

All things considered, oyster farming doesn’t get too technological. There’s no advanced equipment to till the fields, or nutrient-enriched fertilizer for the soil – just the tide, the water and a few techniques to keep the oysters from clustering. Elrite settles the boat alongside a hatchery and slips into the waist-high water.

“Once upon a time there used to be oyster espionage,” he says, discussing how farmers’ methods have diversified. But Elrite doesn’t patent his ideas. “Nah, I’m not too worried about that. I just want everybody to have oysters.”

“How’s the water?” a passenger asks Elrite. “You know,” he considers the temperature, “it’s all right. I don’t have too many holes in my gaiters.” He reaches under the water and pulls up a string of oysters.

Elrite points to dark spots against the shell. “They settle larvae into spat on shells that are then transported in bags, which they then string up on ropes,” he explains. “Each shell can have up to 30-40 oyster spat, all little baby oysters attached to the mother shell.”

The hatcheries are where young oysters “acclimate” to Humboldt Bay, “harden up,” and then are removed to where they are de-clustered by pneumatic hammers. Then it’s back into the bay.

Back in the boat, Elrite discusses the next stop. “We’ll make an intermittent pit stop to show another technology.” He discusses new techniques for raising Kumamoto oysters, and the latest Seapa baskets, “which stands for sea purse baskets.” These baskets are tied together, almost like an underwater clothesline, which rises and falls with the tide, allowing the Seapa to rotate so oysters don’t cluster.

Finally, Elrite brings the boat near his farm, where the water comes to just below the knees. Elrite disembarks and pulls the boat to shallower water, and his passengers follow suit, boots sinking an inch into the bottom of the bay.

Elrite walks between rows of rebar pipes, shaped to hold baskets that contain single-seed Pacific oysters, which take about 18 months to mature. He explains that he’s switched to a method using long-line pipes, a plasticon- plastic rig to prevent baskets from rubbing against the rebar and breaking loose during strong currents. He turns a basket, checking for ready oysters, moving them around to keep them loose.

The mud sucks with each step, and his passengers walk to the shore among a pile of large, clustered oysters. Elrite will eventually use a hammer to separate these oysters, so they can be sold individually.

It’s something of an Easter egg hunt, searching for oysters ready to “harvest” and take back to the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, where they will be prepared and eaten. But as an appetizer, Elrite pries an Olympia oyster, much smaller than the Pacific, from one of the rebar pipes.

“Large amounts of Olympia oysters will set on them,” he explains, describing how the native oysters settle with the tide. “The larvae will attach to the rebar, and there’s not a big market, but I do sell some to the Tourism Center.”

He takes some pliers and a knife and separates the shell, offering the small oyster to a passenger, who slurps it down. They have a briny, coppery finish. A guest says their distinct flavor is becoming popular in the Bay Area.

“Oh, people are getting foodie on it? I like that kind of talk,” Elrite says with a laugh.

Another passenger asks if he’s ever found a pearl. No, says Elrite, but a friend did once.

Passengers bring their oysters to the boat, which Elrite places in a bucket. He starts the engine, and the boat speeds across the bay, nearing a flock of bobbing cormorants. As the boat races past, hundreds of birds extend their wings and take flight.

At the end of the tour, after the passengers have removed their boots and lifejackets, Elrite hands over the oysters, which will be prepared at Humboldt Bay Tourism Center. In this beautifully ornate, late-18th century building, the oysters are shucked and served, and the full circle closes. In less than 30 minutes, the oysters have gone from the bay to the dinner plate, and from there: down the hatch, but not before they’re checked for pearls. None this time, but what these passengers did find, through the Humboldt Bay Oyster Tour, was a unique experience, a real diamond in the rough.

Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours
via Humboldt Bay Tourism Center
205 G St., Eureka • (707) 672-3850