Established in 1909, Tomales Bay Oyster Company,
California’s oldest continuously run shellfish farm
By Shari-Faye Dell, West Marin Citizen
Originally published July 2, 2009
Tomales Bay Oyster Company owner of more than 20 years, Drew Alden this spring passed stewardship of his company to personal and business associate Tod Friend. Friend didn’t have far to go to get the keys. Together with daughter Heidi and son Shannon, Friend also owns The Marshall Store. Friend says he has worked inner-tidal zones of Tomales Bay since 1989 when he began his nine-year tenure as employee of Hog Island Oyster Company. Friend’s efforts focused mainly on farming, but as employee, his duties included periods managing retail operations.
Before turning to aquaculture, Friend managed a 50-acre vineyard North of Healdsburg, purchased by his father in 1973, the decade before it was annexed into the Wine Country. Romantic notions literally swept the family off their feet, “We had the wrong varietals of grape and were undercapitalized,” Friend explains. “We had a hard time making ends meet.” A desire to work the soil inspired Friend to inter-plant peppers and garlic amongst the existing grape and plum crop. He marketed the crop between Veritable Vegetable and the Healdsburg farmer’s market.
The California Department of Water and Resources called 1976, “The fourth driest year on record,” and 1977 “the driest ever.” As a result of the drought, the Friend family well went dry. “We lost all the crops and just never recovered,” says Friend. No stranger to West Marin, Friend visited the eastern shores of Tomales Bay throughout the 80s, came to know residents and proprietors. “I realized that farming the inner-tidal zone was a way to avoid suffering from drought conditions.” He went to work for Hog Island Oyster Company. “As an employee in agriculture you cannot get anywhere,” Friend says. “You have to own something to have any leverage.” In 2000 opportunity knocked, he purchased a lease on 62 acres from Bay Bottom Beds at Walker Creek mud flats, a prime oyster bed location near the mouth of the bay.
West Coast oyster industry infancy
California oyster farming bloomed with the growing populations of people coming west in search of gold and opportunity. As early as 1851, entrepreneurs in San Francisco most notable of which was Captain John Stillwell Morgan, established businesses marketing the native bivalve. In response to shellfish aficionados reporting California varieties as small and coppery in taste, Bay Area marketers began supplementing local stock with transplanted oysters from Willapa Bay, Washington. Commercial storage and maturing beds for the Washington shellfish were established near Sausalito and other northern shores of the San Francisco Bay. Production lasted several years before water cannon mining in the Sierra’s sent tons of silt down the San Joaquin and the Sacramento Rivers burying operations in 1862. Underwater acreage off San Mateo County became the new hotspot for a growing shellfish industry; real estate values began a steady climb and the industry flourished.
Oyster production in the Bay evolved following completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869. Oystermen imported East Coast seed for cultivation, built canneries, and shipped the mature, packaged product back across the country. According to a bulletin published by the United States Fish Commission, in 1880 the United States was the largest producer of shellfish worldwide: the Bay Area ranking sixth largest harvester in the country. Canned oysters became an essential and affordable source of nourishment nationwide.
As the California Oyster industry prospered, six well-established companies vying for market advantage engaged in a series of buyouts and mergers. By 1886, shrewd business choices granted Morgan Oyster Company, operated by John Morgan, the monopolistic advantage. But, Bay Area population continued to grow and California’s most valuable marine industry was threatened by pollution and the presence of salmonella and coliform bacteria (from raw sewage) in estuarine waters. A Typhoid Fever epidemic in 1899, believed to have spread through the consumption of shellfish grown in contaminated waters, seriously handicapped the industry. Oxygen levels in the water continued to drop and reports published in 1908 declare “seedlings could not attach themselves to a solid surface.” Within a few years mature oysters suffocated as well.
Shellfisheries: a second childhood on Tomales Bay
According to a National Park Service draft of “Tomales Bay Environmental History,” the first Tomales Bay oyster beds were sown near Millerton Point in 1875 by Terry Weinard. The search for clean water brought Eli Gordon, operating as the Pacific Coast Oyster Company (PCOC), to underwater acreage at Bivalve in 1907 followed by the Morgan Oyster Company in 1909, planting near Millerton Point. In 1910 Gilbert Oyster Company established beds, also near Millerton Point. In 1913 a group of SF businessmen purchased Morgan’s Tomales Bay holdings, officially renaming the fishery Tomales Bay Oyster Company. Both companies changed hands a number of times before Pacific Coast Oyster Company purchased Tomales Bay Oyster Company. The combined operations were regrouped. TBOC continued to farm both East Shore properties and PCOC focused on marketing, wholesale and retail, in San Francisco. Conveniently, the North Pacific Coast Railroad, incorporated in 1871 to freight lumber from the Russian River and dairy products from West Sonoma to San Francisco, provided worthy transport.
Mass die off in San Francisco Bay during the 1880’s prompted the United States Fish Commission (USFC) to research oyster cultivation. Assigned to studies at Morgan Oyster Company’s San Mateo beds, researcher Charles Townsend published a paper suggesting a number of mariculture improvements including the introduction of Pacific or Japanese oysters into Bay Area ecology. In 1928, although originally overlooked, Townsend’s report prompted California Department of Fish and Game to partner with Tomales Bay Oyster Company (TBOC) and introduce the Pacific Oyster, a variety from Japan, to Tomales Bay. In 1935, following several years of trial and error, TBOC produced an exceptional; the Pacific oyster grew in popularity and became the West Coast standard.
Oscar Johannson, hired by Tomales Bay Oyster Company’s parent company in 1926, managed growing operations at the Tomales beds, eventually, he gained ownership of the farming side of the company. He continued to cultivate the tidelands with his son until 1988. He sold the company and retired a few weeks before marrying on his eightieth Birthday. To date, Tomales Bay Oyster Company is the longest continually operating oyster farm in the State of California.