Little Skookum Shellfish Growers Inc.: Quality Shellfish Since 1883

Little Skookum Shellfish Growers Inc. (Little Skookum) has been providing high-quality Manila clams and Pacific, Olympia and Kumamoto oysters to diners with discerning palates since 1883. Jeremiah Lynch, an Irish immigrant who first came to the United States in 1849, founded the business. Jeremiah sought fortune by joining the California Gold Rush, but found the business less than lucrative. By 1883 he had moved north to Washington and settled on a piece of land in Shelton, Wash., in South Puget Sound.

The beds of the inlet were rich with the possibility of growing oysters, and Jeremiah shared his bounty with friends and family. Soon the demand grew into a small harvesting operation. Both the homestead and the business have since been passed down through five generations to current owners Lisa and Brett Bishop, as well as their sons. “We bought out the other partners in 2010,” says Lisa, president of Little Skookum. The family continues to live on the land and manage the beds, but the business has changed drastically since its inception over 125 years ago.

Good Food and Healthy Waterways

As is to be expected, Lisa and the crew take sustainability seriously. The company is proactive in keeping the sound and the inlet healthy, although Lisa says the shellfish help, too. Clams and oysters filter water, helping to maintain a nutrient balance in the waterway. Clean water promotes a healthy, safe harvest, and Little Skookum relies on a quality product to stay in business. “Without quality we don’t have anything,” says Lisa.

The crew harvests clams and oysters at low tide by hand, using digging forks and buckets. The shellfish are then transferred to a sink float, where they purge, or expel sand, before being prepared for shipment. To ensure quality, each product is inspected three times along the processing line before being shipped. “All of our clams are grown and processed in the state of Washington,” says Lisa, who explains this helps ensure that the product maintains quality and can arrive for processing within a day of harvesting.

The company’s attention to detail doesn’t stop there. Every year Little Skookum restocks the beds. “We plant over 50 million clam seeds,” explains Lisa. The replanting guarantees another harvest two years down the road and maintains water quality, as the shellfish are an important part of the delicate inlet ecosystem. The “babies,” as Lisa calls them, are grown in a specialized system that keeps them well-fed and protected from predators like birds, crabs and moon snails. Once the babies are big enough to survive on their own, they are spread on the beach where they burrow into the sand to grow into big, strong clams.

Can You Dig It?

Like many food producers, Little Skookum is faced with environment challenges. “We’ve had some really late springs,” says Lisa. “This means that there isn’t as much growth on the beaches, with three months less growing time.” The climate cycle can affect the harvest as well. “If the water temperature is just slightly off, the spawn will not occur,” she explains.

In the fall months rains wash nutrients and everything else on the land into the water, and chemicals such as fertilizers are harmful for shellfish and other wildlife. “It’s very rural here,” explains Lisa. “We don’t fertilize anything. Everything is natural. We try to educate the upland owners about the harm of fertilizers and failing septic systems. Even pet wastes can have an impact on water quality.”

Against all odds business has been steady for Little Skookum, despite the national economic downturn. According to Lisa, she and the crew are looking forward to continued, sustainable growth. “We’re gearing up to sell more oysters,” she says of the company’s plan for the next few years. “We’re hoping to get into other types of shellfish.” Little Skookum’s business comes mainly through a core group of customers that the company has been selling to for years, and Lisa is hoping to pick up more long-term clients as well.

The company remains family-operated and is expected to continue that way for generations. “Our partners are nature and the crew we have had for many years,” says Lisa. “Our employees are like family. Their children work for us also,” she laughs.

Lisa’s clients, which range from international wholesalers to small local restaurants, appreciate the crew’s dedication to fresh, quality food, as the Bishops keep business simple and they understand the necessary balance to the business of producing food. Little Skookum Shellfish Growers Inc. is an establishment of tradition, quality and environmental responsibility.