We are skidding through the water of Humboldt Bay, the dock of Coast Seafoods receding behind us as we head toward the oyster fields. It's a crisp morning, with the gray-blue water and navy sky colluding to form a rim of bright silver at the horizon. "Everyone should know what a good oyster looks and feels like," says Greg Dale from the prow of the boat. Dale, general manager of Coast Seafoods, wears a windbreaker, sunglasses and hat against the glare of the sun. Like many who make their living on the water, the salt air and sun have framed his eyes and mouth with deep grooves, but his enthusiasm and easy smile give him a boyish air.
"When most people think oysters they're thinking Pacific oysters. They're nice and big. But we have some of the best of these finicky little things called Kumamotos. They're like Goldilocks — they like it not too hot, not too cold — and they seem to do the best right here in Humboldt Bay."
An oyster farm, Dale says, is much like a regular farm: constant work, constant maintenance. Pong Xayavong, Coast Seafoods' farm manager, visits the oyster beds daily to check on the delicate bivalves. Today he guides the boat with practiced ease into the glittering expanse of the bay.
The two men have worked side by side for close to a quarter century. A graduate of Humboldt State University, Dale originally planned to use his degree in fisheries biology as a high school science teacher in the Alaskan bush. During the summers he worked on fishing boats. He was on his way out the door to go salmon fishing in Bristol Bay when his wife handed him a positive pregnancy test, prompting him to find a steadier job.
Dale started as a general laborer for Coast Seafoods, then transitioned into planting and harvesting before his current position. He and Xayavong have a lot of water to cover daily: The company actively farms about 400 of its 4,000 acres in the bay. Dale enjoys plucking Kumamotos straight from the water for a taste.
"There's this French culinary word terroir, which refers to the influence place has on the taste of food. Well here we have merroir. The place where we raise our oysters definitely makes them more delicious."
A good Kumamoto oyster, Dale says, is meant to be eaten raw from the shell, and can have a "buttery," "cucumbery" or "Honeydew melon" finish. For a long time oysters in American cuisine were served from cans or in soup, but recent years have seen a surge in popularity for raw oysters among the foodie set. Small, sweet Kumamotos are now shipped all over the country, and close to 70 percent of the oysters served in California come straight from Humboldt Bay.
A large part of the company's success can be attributed to its commitment to water quality. Coast Seafoods recently teamed with environmental group Humboldt Baykeeper to study the source of contaminants that leave local waterways to pollute the bay, pledging to match up to $10,000 in funding for the organization and contributing its own years of data and research. Although Humboldt Bay has some of the cleanest water for aquaculture, winter rains can occasionally bring pollutants into the water, forcing the company to stop production until the oysters are once again safe to eat. The company also took a prominent (and unpopular) stance in the mid-1990s when the local pulp mill was preparing to dump effluent into the Bay, opposing the move to the chagrin of some who accused Coast Seafoods of being business-unfriendly.
"Humboldt Bay is public trust land," says Dale. "It has to be managed in the best interest of the public."
Recently the company advanced a loan to help remove corrosive chemicals stored at the now vacant pulp mill so the harbor district could begin converting the facility to an aquaculture business park.
Back on shore at Café Waterfront, Dale shakes hands with the bartender before ordering a plate of Kumos in the shell.
"People can put way too much stuff on oysters," says Dale. "Kumos are meant to be eaten with minimal condiments."
When the oysters arrive, Dale squeezes a lemon wedge over their quivering flesh before slurping them from their stony shells. As promised, the Kumamotos are rich and briny, with a sweet, cucumbery finish.
"See, you don't need to add anything to that," says Dale as we lick our lips. "Maybe a little Tabasco sauce."
As we dine, the restaurant's owner comes by the table to pump Dale's hand. Customers have already begun to compliment the Kumamotos delivered fresh from just down the dock that morning.
Dale says that although this is a far cry from teaching science, he still gets to educate people about the ocean, and the company's devotion to good data scratches his scientific itch. Above all, he's grateful to live where he does.
"I don't know if I could go anywhere else," he says. "I'd miss the smell of the sea."