California’s Oyster Farms Offer a Unique Kind of Culinary Ecotourism

Hog Island Oysters on the half shell
Katherine Gallagher

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Looking for a tasty way to support the environment while traveling? Head to a sustainable oyster farm in Northern California and get shucking. When farmed the right way, oyster reefs help filter water and provide essential habitats for different types of marine life. Plus, they’re completely packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals to help fuel your adventures.

Oysters are grown worldwide, but California’s oyster farms are primarily condensed to Tomales Bay and Humboldt Bay on the north end of the state (though there are a few in places like Santa Barbara and Morro Bay, as well). Even better, Tomales Bay is within a day trip's distance from San Francisco and Napa Valley. While you can absolutely find some incredible oysters on restaurant menus across the country, visiting a farm offers the opportunity to try them straight from the water.

Oysters and the Environment

When you dive into a platter of fresh oysters, you’re contributing to so much more than the local economy. These little mollusks have a practically negative carbon footprint, especially if you’re eating locally-farmed ones. Their shells can even be composted or recycled into pavement and are among the best materials for growing new, juvenile oysters. 

According to the NOAA, oysters that accumulate into reef systems provide shelter or habitats for other sea life like crabs and fish while protecting coastlines from storms to prevent erosion. Perhaps most importantly, oysters filter and clean the surrounding water as they feed. A single oyster can filter a whopping 50 gallons of water each day, removing pollutants and disease-causing organisms from the water at the same time. So, while oyster farms are maintaining oyster reefs, they naturally provide valuable support to surrounding coastal environments.

To be sustainable, oyster farms have to be managed correctly and restored regularly. Many oyster growers contribute to the conservation and the recovery of oyster species outside of their commercial farms. As the value and interest in oysters expand, more farmers are encouraged to grow them sustainably, supporting both the ecosystem and the economy for generations to come.

Where to Find Them

When it comes to oysters, the best ones come straight from the source. In California, that means heading north. The state’s oyster industry is mostly condensed to the north coast, with several small companies gaining massive popularity throughout the past decade. Most spots have a restaurant or oyster bar near the farm that will serve them up for you, but grabbing a bag to shuck yourself is a unique and highly recommended experience.

Hog Island Oyster Company

Just over an hour from San Francisco in the coastal community of Marshall, Hog Island Oyster Company sits on the water's edge. Though the family-run business started in 1983 with just five acres and a couple of oyster seeds (which are basically tiny oysters), it now spans over 160 acres and about 200 employees with restaurants in San Francisco and Napa. The original oyster bar location in Marshall sells prepared oysters and bags to-go and shucking equipment and sauces for those who want to take their oysters elsewhere. The outdoor counter, appropriately known as the “Hog Shack,” sells local fresh fish, mussels, clams, and seasonal favorites like Dungeness crab. The lucky few who snag a picnic table overlooking the water on property gain the unique experience of eating oysters literally next door to the bay where they were grown. Pair your oysters with some sides and a bottle of local wine from the bar, and you’re all set.

Sustainability-speaking, it really doesn’t get any better than Hog Island. These guys truly care about keeping the partnership between oysters and their environments thriving in the area (both in the wild and in farms). The company is a founding member of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition, which partners farmers around the country with The Nature Conservancy to inspire climate awareness, and works with NOAA funding to monitor ocean acidification and its effect on aquaculture. Hog Island even collaborates with conservation research on local underwater plant health and works with restoration scientists to bring native oyster species back to the bay.

Hog Island Oyster Company in California
Katherine Gallagher

Tomales Bay Oyster Company

About four miles down the road from Hog Island, Tomales Bay Oyster Company prides itself on being the oldest continuously run shellfish farm in California. First opened in 1909, the family farm location offers to-go oysters only, but there are plenty of spots just begging for a beach picnic nearby. Fill your cooler with fresh oysters and make your way to Heart’s Desire State Beach just 15 miles away or one of Bodega Bay’s most popular beaches at Doran Regional Park 26 miles north. To stock up on picnic supplies, stop at the original Cowgirl Creamery about five miles south for some award-winning cheese, local beer, and other essentials.

If you’re not in the mood to shuck, the farm has a shoreline restaurant less than a five-minute drive away called The Marshall Store, serving up an entire menu complete with grilled or raw oysters. The restaurant also sells drinks, non-seafood selections, and one of the best fish sandwiches in town.

Apart from highlighting reusable and recyclable materials for the farm, Tomales Bay Oyster Company takes great care to reduce environmental impact on the bay. They conduct regular inspections around the area to remove discarded or lost fishing equipment and debris that could injure wildlife and participate in bay-wide coastal cleanups at least four times a year.

The Marshall Store off Tomales Bay in California
Katherine Gallagher

Aqua-Rodeo Farms

On the far north end of the state, California’s other main oyster-producing bay is located closer to Redwood National Park in Humboldt County. Aqua-Rodeo Farms in Humboldt Bay is another grab-and-go oyster farm, but visitors get the bonus of watching the oysters come straight from the sea during harvest season. In the spring, summer, and fall afternoons, farmers from Aqua-Rodeo can be found sorting, cleaning, and counting oysters on the marina. They try to get their daily harvest in by 2 p.m. so guests in the afternoon can get the freshest selection around. The company’s founder started the business after getting a degree in wildlife management and also offers educational boat tours of the farm for visitors interested in aquaculture (with oyster tasting included, of course).

That same founder also owns a local restaurant, Humboldt Bay Provisions, found across the water and about two blocks inland in Eureka town. Pair your raw or broiled oysters with a variety of locally sourced cheese, meats, bread, desserts, and drinks, and don’t miss “Buck-a-Shuck Tuesdays” with $1 oysters. The restaurant is super involved in the local community and hosts a weekly “Monday Mentors” night, where $1 of every pint sold goes towards local non-profits. The program has donated to the Redwood Community Action Agency for the youth services, the local Boys & Girls of America chapter, Humboldt CASA advocates for foster children, the Sequoia Humane Society, and more.

Article Sources
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  1. NOAA Fisheries. "Oyster Reef Habitat." Retrieved March 17, 2021.

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