History – Yamashita Family

Jerry Yamashita, The Oyster Saga by Lynne Sterling


When people in Coyle think of oysters we think of Dabob Bay which is one of the of largest commercial oyster seed growing areas in Washington State. Yet in the 1920’s there was hardly an oyster to be seen on our shores.

The native Olympia oyster, first tasted by a non-native, was Captain George Vancouver in 1792. By 1850 this tiny delicate oyster was being commercially exploited until over harvesting and pollution, made it almost disappear.

Masahide Yamashita had immigrated to Seattle from Japan in 1900. He became an oyster buyer and broker, and by 1920 began importing oyster seed from Japan as the stocks of Olympia oysters had dived to very low levels. In the beginning he seeded leased tidelands in Samish Bay and began increasing his holdings.

His son Jerry, at the age of 13 went to work in his father’s oyster beds. Then WWII broke out and it became unlawful to buy oyster seed from Japan, then to make things worse Japanese people were prohibited from owning property. The business was finished. Jerry’s father was arrested and Jerry, his mother, sister, and brother were sent to the Tule Lake Internment Camp in California.

In 1945 they were released and Jerry returned to oyster farming. He worked and saved and by 1947 he was able to buy some tidal property on Dabob Bay. He dug a well, built a shack, and built up his business into the Western Oyster Company.

Jerry continued to acquire more tidal property and seeded more beds and his counterpart Dick Steele was successfully growing oysters at the head of Dabob Bay known as called Tarboo Bay. They both became founding fathers of the North Pacific Oyster Growers Association and officially named the Japanese oyster the ‘Pacific’ oyster.

The association evolved into the Pacific Oyster Growers Association, which we have today. The Pacific oysters thrive in these waters of Dabob Bay which is one of just 3 places on the West Coast that the oyster farmer knows he can reliably collect wild oyster seed. Unlike the Olympia oyster, which takes 4 to 5 years to get to the size of a quarter, the Pacific oyster grows fast and fat in 3 years and now dominates the fishery.

Jerry Yamashita is now 83. He continues to be involved with the business and chuckles when he says no one in the family is interested in oyster farming. Too hard.