December 1, 2005
A good old-fashioned oyster round-up
by HEIDI WALTERS
Roy McIntire was studying aerial photographs, taken by the United States Geological Survey, of Humboldt Bay one day when his eyes were drawn to an extraordinary pattern of circles in the mud. No, he didn't flip out and call talk show host Art Bell, bunkered down in the Nevada desert. He wrote us. "Perhaps you could explain these 'bay circles' I noticed while looking at aerial photos of Humboldt Bay," he said. "I have attached two photos. Unless these are ancient (1960s) landing pads for the Arcatans, the only explanation I can think of is that a boat harvesting oysters (?) tethered to an anchor at the center then gradually played out line as it circled about. What do you know?"
Well, Roy, you're right of course. And just why is it exactly that you were studying aerial photographs of Humboldt Bay in the first place? Just kidding. Anyway, dutifully completing the assignment from Mr. McIntire, we contacted the Humboldt Bay Harbor Recreation and Conservation District Chief Executive Officer Dave Hull, who confirmed that the circles were made by an old technique of oyster harvesting. "Oh, that's north bay," Hull said. "That picture is probably not very current. They have a whole different technique now. It's probably been five or six years since they've used [that kind of] harvesting that would make a circular pattern."
Starting back in about 1950, Hull said, oyster growers such as Coast Seafoods -- the biggest oyster company around here -- would spawn the oysters in controlled conditions and then take the little seed oysters and "put them loose on the bottom of the bay." After about three years, the grower would take the harvester out on a barge and play out a conveyor-like line that would sweep in a circle, scooping in the oysters. "Then they would lengthen the line to make a bigger circle and do it again." And so on. The machinery left those big bay circles in the mud.
The old circles are probably vague, by now, what with the changeable bay and the eel grass taking over. But there might be discernible rectangular patterns: These days growers dangle the seed oysters from strings attached to foot-high pvc pipes set in the bay in rectangular groupings and let the oysters grow. When they're big enough to harvest, a barge goes in and picks up the line at high tide and brings it on board. "It's a lot more environmentally friendly" than the old circular-swoop method, said Hull. And that old circle harvester's long gone, he said. "It's probably razor blades by now."
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