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Westcott Bay Sea Farms is being downsized, is up for sale

Doree and Bill Webb came up with the idea for gourmet oysters after seeing scallops grown in lantern nets in Japan. Their brainchild, Westcott Bay Sea Farms, is scaling back as their daughters prepare to sell the sea farm and adjacent land.  - Contributed photo / Craig and Robin Bleeker
Doree and Bill Webb came up with the idea for gourmet oysters after seeing scallops grown in lantern nets in Japan. Their brainchild, Westcott Bay Sea Farms, is scaling back as their daughters prepare to sell the sea farm and adjacent land.
— image credit: Contributed photo / Craig and Robin Bleeker

Oyster grower is scaling back, but family hopes new owner will restore business to earlier glory

Westcott Bay Sea Farms is being downsized to a clam operation with periodic harvest of mussels and oysters. Its surrounding acreage is for sale.

The sea farm is no longer supplying oysters to such restaurants as Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City, Old Ebbets in Washington, D.C., and Rodney’s in Toronto. At its zenith in the 1990s, the sea farm supplied 175,000 dozen oysters a year to 50-60 restaurants. Today, it is supplying only to restaurants on the island.

At one time, there were 12 employees; now there are three. Interns from the U.W. Friday Harbor Labs staffed the hatchery in the summers, shepherding oysters from spat to seed. Today, the hatchery is shuttered.

But that can’t be the story.

No, reporting only that the sea farm is clinging to life shouldn’t overshadow the imagination and foresight that gave it life, oyster fans might say. It shouldn’t overshadow the magic of Westcott Bay, with its 10-foot tides that flood the oysters with nutrients. It shouldn’t overshadow, they’d say, how nature and innovation came together to produce an oyster that changed how oysters are prepared and served.

“It hasn’t been a fantastic money maker, but it’s been steady and it provided a lot of jobs,” said general manager Craig Bleeker, son-in-law of the sea farm’s founder. “It’s a lifestyle.”

It was 1962 when Bill Webb, director of the famous Webb School for Boys in Claremont, Calif., bought the former Camp Henderson (forerunner of Camp Nor’wester) and started his own summer camp. It was an outpost where he could teach marine biology — and have a lot of fun.

Webb held classes in a decommissioned ferry tied to a dock he built on the bay. He commuted each summer from Southern California, driving up Highway 99 with his children and a couple of dogs.

In 1966, Webb’s doctors warned him he had to give up the camp or the school; his schedule was too much for him. So he gave up the camp. But dreams for his summer retreat did not wane.

Then, in 1978, he and his wife, Doree, vacationed in Japan. While there, they saw how a sea farm grew scallops in lantern nets, attached to buoys and suspended above the sea floor. The nets kept the scallops away from predators; the scallops fed on nutrients whipped up by the flush of the tides.

Webb wondered: Could oysters be raised in lantern nets in Westcott Bay? He knew that the European flat must be submerged and that the Pacific oyster can grow submerged or exposed to air. What would happen if they were allowed to grow in clear bay water 24 hours a day?

This was an era when oysters were predominately shucked and then canned or jarred in salt water. Webb had an idea to produce a gourmet oyster that could be served on the half-shell — an oyster “for the tablecloth trade,” Bleeker said.

Oysters would not be treated as a commodity, Bleeker said, but grown and handled in a careful manner.

The Westcott Bay oyster was born. While the sea farm grew two types of oysters — the European flat, commonly known in France as the Belon, and the Pacific oyster — Westcott Bay’s oysters were distinctly different. The shells are thinner and open easier than those of beach-grown oysters, which have to contend with predators. The meat and liquid of the Westcott Bay oyster is sweeter — grow-out manager Frank Raue calls the liquid “elixir” — than those of its beach-grown counterparts.

For almost 10 years, Westcott Bay bought its oyster seed from the Lummi Nation Shellfish Hatchery. Previously, in its own hatchery, oyster larvae were nurtured in holding tanks where they fed on algae until they reached a suitable size to be transferred to upwellers. The upwellers are holding areas in the bay into which high-algae content sea water is pumped round the clock, accelerating the oyster’s growth to the size of a half-dollar in about eight weeks.

From there, the oysters go to a nursery tray, which is suspended in the water, for about one year. The oysters are then sorted based on three levels of sizes, then placed in lantern nets for up to two years. Each buoy supports nets holding 1,500 oysters. Lantern nets are spread over 23 aquatic acres.

At harvest time, the oysters are powerwashed and packed in gel ice, resting on their crown, or rounded part of the shell. The oysters arrive at the restaurants table-ready.

Sandra Spencer was office manager of Westcott Bay Sea Farms from 1988 to 2006. “There were intangible benefits to working there,” she said. “We could take a reasonable amount of product home, we could bring our dogs to work. It was a throwback to the old island days. It was very special and it was family.”

Employee longevity was a hallmark. Mark Billington, who started the hatchery, has been with the company for 26 years. Grow-out manager Frank Raue has worked for the sea farm about 22 years. Peter Augusztiny was sales manager for 10 years — as well as janitor and mower.

“The thing that made it special was we had a wonderful product that I was most proud to represent,” Augusztiny said. “It was a small business; everybody did everything.”

He remembers $2,000 worth of oysters — at 25 cents an oyster, that’s 8,000 oysters — being sold in one U-pick day.

“You couldn’t park,” he said.

Time went on, the owners got older. Doree Webb died in 1992. Five years later, Bill Webb sold the sea farm to his employees but retained ownership of the land. Webb asked Bleeker, who is married to Webb’s daughter, Robin, to oversee financial practices.

In fall 2001, employees asked Bleeker if he wanted to buy their shares; the Bleekers took ownership of the sea farm in January 2002.

The family patriarch is now 88, his daughters are facing retirement. After several meetings, they decided to sell the 77-acre property. The rub is, the sea farm leases the tidelands from the Webb family and the aquatic acreage from the state Department of Natural Resources.

To make the sale easier, the Bleekers are going to sell their leases to the Webbs; they’ve asked him to downsize the farm but keep it viable in the event a new owner wants to reinvest in it.

“What their collective hope and desire is for the property to be sold to buyers interested in reinvesting in the sea farm,” Bleeker said. “The sea farm is the life product of their parents’ work.”

Bleeker said that, although his family is fading away from the sea farm business, “We were hoping this day wouldn’t come. It’s a fun business. People like to talk about food — and the product sells itself.”

Augusztiny hopes the farm will be revived. “It has a wonderful name. If someone wanted to work hard enough at it, they could do it. It’s a farm, and like any farm, it’s work.”

Islanders can still visit Westcott Bay Sea Farms — 904 Westcott Drive, San Juan Island — and buy oysters, mussels and clams. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Kathleen Dolsen is the office manager. Jacque Anthony runs the office on Saturdays; Joe Tein runs the office on Sundays.

Call 378-2489. Visit www.westcottbay.com

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