On November 6, 1928, voters approve the formation of the Port of Peninsula, located on the Long Beach Peninsula in Pacific County. The Port's district encompasses the peninsula from Long Beach to the southern border of the Port of Willapa Harbor district on Leadbetter Point, west of the section line that is now Sandridge Road. Although intended to serve oyster companies on Willapa Bay, no part of the port's district lies on the bay because the Port of Ilwaco's district includes all the land on the eastern side of the peninsula. This creates a legal dilemma that will not be resolved until the 1970s when the Port of Ilwaco transfers a portion of its district at Nahcotta to the Port of Peninsula. The Port will remain a somewhat informal entity until the 1950s when a joint project with the Army Corps of Engineers requires that it formalize its operations. Over the next 50 years the Port will develop a number of facilities to serve the oyster industry, fishing boats, recreational boaters, and tourists.
The Oysters of Willapa Bay
Oysters have attracted people to Willapa Bay for centuries. The bay, located in Pacific County, is shallow, with tens of thousands of acres of oyster beds. The Chinook and Lower Chehalis Indians gathered the native species, Ostrea lurida Carpenter, and introduced the first white American settlers to them. The 1849 Gold Rush in California created tremendous demand for the shellfish in the San Francisco market. Oyster companies sent schooners north to what was then known as Shoalwater Bay to buy the oysters as fast as the locals could gather them in.
By the 1880s meeting the market's demand led to overharvesting and the oyster populations dropped precipitously. At the same time, the transcontinental railroads arrived in San Francisco and made it possible to transport Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) to San Francisco where they, in contrast to Willapa Bay oysters, would spawn in the bay's waters.
Oyster operators in Shoalwater Bay tried importing Eastern oysters in 1905. Demand had grown in response to concerns about pollution in San Francisco Bay. Oyster operators found that young oysters would grow, but not spawn. This led them to import new generations of oysters each year, leading to high operating expenses.
Eastern oyster growing came to an abrupt end in 1919 with a die-off that was most likely due to the arrival of Goyaulax, a micro-organism that is toxic to oysters. The Eastern operations on the bay did not survive the financial losses.
In 1928 Gerard Mogan, later owner of Baypoint Oyster Farms and Willapa Oyster Farms, placed Japanese oyster (Crassostrea gigas), now known as the Pacific oyster, seed in Willapa Bay. The bay's environment suited the oysters well and, as historian Nancy Lloyd explains in her history of the oyster industry on Willapa Bay, the previous decade's dearth of oysters had allowed the accumulation of nutrients. The oysters grew explosively and soon a number of oyster operations stocked their beds with Japanese oysters.
The oysters grew so well on the bay that once they began being harvested, they overwhelmed the market. In 1929 cannery operations opened on the bay to deal with the seasonal surpluses.
Port of Peninsula
In much the same way that farmers on land can be limited by a lack of access to processing facilities and to markets, oyster farmers on Willapa Bay needed transportation and processing infrastructure near their oyster beds. This included access to docks and space to unload oysters. On the western side of the bay there were no natural coves, just private docks and the county's Nahcotta Dock. Likewise, gillnetters, who fished for salmon on the west side of the bay, needed a safe harbor nearby.
In 1911 the state legislature passed the Port District Act, which allowed for the formation of public port districts that could raise revenue through property taxes, bond issues, operating income, and other prescribed means and carry out harbor improvements.
In 1928 voters approved a measure creating the Port of Peninsula. It was the third port formed in Pacific County that year, after Port of Ilwaco and Port of Willapa Harbor. Ilwaco primarily served the fishing fleet on the Columbia River, and the Port of Willapa Harbor operated marinas at Tokeland and Bay Center, on the northern and eastern sides of the bay, and planned a cargo handling dock at Raymond. None of these facilities could be easily used by oyster farmers or gillnetters on the bay's west side.
The Port of Peninsula chose Nahcotta for its facilities. The town had long been home to a county dock and the Ilwaco Navigation and Railway Company operated a dock there that handled lumber, oysters, cranberries, and other freight. It was not a particularly protected location, nor did it have any deep water, but the channel extending the length of the bay came closest to the shore about one-quarter mile out from the town.
In 1928 Pacific County transferred to the Port the county dock at Nahcotta, located roughly where the breakwater on the south side of the Port's mooring basin is today. In 1933, Washington state traded 90 acres from the Long Island Oyster Preserve out from Nahcotta for other tidelands nearby. This allowed boats access to the dock and the beach when it was exposed at low tide.
Oystermen used the beach to unload their oysters. The area where the Port offices and parking lot are now was then a beach (it was filled with dredge spoils in the 1950s). Trucks drove down onto the beach and the oysters were loaded across the wet sand. The trucks then delivered the oysters to local canneries or to market via the docks at Ilwaco, Raymond, and South Bend.
Gillnetters brought their catch in to the dock. Plentiful salmon runs, in addition to halibut, sturgeon, and bottom fish, filled their holds.
The Port conducted very little official business during its first few years. It operated in close cooperation with the oyster companies and primarily maintained the dock and access to the beach. This may explain why no one challenged the facilities' location outside of the Port's district. The Port District Act required that ports only develop property that lay within their boundaries. The Port of Peninsula, however, did not have any location within its boundaries that could serve as a port. The entire western side of the peninsula, the port's district, offered no channels through which to approach the shore.
The Controversy of the Airport
The public did object to the Port's attempt to build an airport within its boundaries, in Long Beach in the 1940s. The commissioners had, starting in 1946, pursued federal funding that was available through the Civil Aeronautics Administration for airport construction. They received half of the funding for an airport at Long Beach with hangars and an administration building. The remaining half of the funding would come from the Port's budget.
Over the next year a number of Ocean Park residents campaigned against the plan. Historian Nancy Lloyd found numerous articles in the Chinook Observer chiding north county residents for their uncooperative attitude and accused them of only opposing the airport because it was not in their town. This may be true, but the Observer was a Long Beach-based newspaper and may have been guilty of supporting the project because it was in Long Beach.
Eventually, the Ocean Park residents filed a lawsuit to prevent the project from moving forward. The Port abandoned the plan in November 1948. Today, the closest airport is to the south, at Ilwaco.
Improvements to Dock and Bay
The Port dock had been condemned in the early 1950s. The old wooden pilings and planking could no longer be trusted to hold the weight of trucks bringing oyster to and from the canneries located on the northern side of the dock. Clyde Sayce (b. 1921), former oyster company employee and oyster researcher and current port commissioner, remembers that he and some other oyster company employees repaired the dock by taking the lumber from the top and nailing it to the sides. They then filled the void between the two walls with oyster shells capped with sand and gravel to form a roadway.
In the 1950s Roy Sheldon (1903-1989), chair of the Ocean Park Chamber of Commerce fisheries committee, began to advise the Port on its development. He advocated for a sheltered harbor for the gillnetters. During rough weather, the closest safe harbors were located near the mouth of Willapa Bay at Tokeland and on the far eastern side of the bay at Bay Center. Through his efforts, the Port, the state of Washington, and local landowners worked together with the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the Port's facilities.
The River and Harbor Act of 1954 authorized funding for a large, joint project between the Port and the Army Corps of Engineers. The project involved building a breakwater along the line of the old Port dock, dredging a mooring basin and a 40-foot deep channel from deepwater in the bay to the basin.
The breakwater was built on the south side of the mooring basin to protect boats from the prevailing winds and winter storms that came across the thin isthmus of land separating the bay from the Columbia River.
To prepare for the project the commissioners developed a comprehensive plan for developing the Port. The plan included a provision for improving the dock that extended easterly from Lincoln Street, which is now 273rd Street, along with the planned improvements the Corps of Engineers would complete.
The Port also agreed to build a bulkhead along the beach to retain the dredge spoils brought up from the channel and basin dredging. The land created from the fill is where the port offices are today. Local landowners donated land to the Port in 1956. This provided space for the dredge spoils and the mooring basin.
When the project was completed in 1959 the Port had replaced the old method of unloading across the beach with a more efficient and easier dock and float system. The new infrastructure supported the continued development of the oyster and fishing industries on Willapa Bay. There were nine oyster processing plants, numerous oyster companies, and independent oyster farmers and gillnetters based in Nahcotta.
The 1950s saw the beginning of a shift towards consolidation among the oyster companies. Larger boats, which required more capital to purchase, began to appear on the bay and large companies were more able to afford them and then outcompete the smaller operations. This trend would continue into the 1980s, when most of the oyster beds in the bay would be owned by a handful of companies.
That Legal Problem
In the 1970s the issue of the Port's facilities lying outside the district's boundaries came to a head. In May 1975 the state auditor chastised the Port for not following the Port District Act's requirements. There was nothing unseemly in the Port's practices; it just didn't follow the letter of the law.
The Port did not act in response to the auditor's letter and in October Kenneth Keeler III, filed a writ of prohibition against the Port challenging the Port's ability to continue its operations at Nahcotta. The court ruled in January 1976 that the Port must cease any operations outside of its district.
The next month, the Port of Ilwaco agreed to manage the Nahcotta basin while the Port of Peninsula figured out a more permanent solution. The Port of Peninsula turned to the state legislature for help.
A state law, passed in 1978 and amended slightly in 1979 provided a means to rectify the situation. It authorized a port to purchase property that shared at least one border with the existing port district. The existing port in which the land lay could then pass a resolution transferring that portion of its district to the adjoining port district. The new port would then pass a resolution adjusting its district boundaries. The ports of Ilwaco and Peninsula did just that and the Port of Peninsula again took over control of the facilities at Nahcotta.
The functioning of the Port began shifting in the 1970s. Whereas before the oyster companies had dominated the port commission and played a large role in the Port's daily operations, after the 1970s, the commission served in a more advisory and policymaking role and the port manager oversaw day-to-day activities.
The 1970s also saw the beginning of the decline in the number of commercial fishing boats based at the Port. From a high of about 100 gillnetters, the number has fallen to about 10 in 2010. Past overharvesting and the re-assertion of tribal treaty rights to half of the annual catch reduced the number of fish available to commercial fishing operations. To stay in business gillnetters out of Nahcotta now often have licenses for more than one fishing area, such as Willapa Bay and the Columbia River; fish for more than one species; and also bring in crab.
Recreational boaters have increased at the Port in the last several decades. From the port basin, boaters can reach fishing grounds around Long Island, pursue salmon runs as the fish migrate in to the eight rivers that feed the bay, or follow the Willapa Water Trail. In 2000, the Port built a boat launch and added parking to accommodate and encourage the increase in recreational boaters. The Port improved wetlands on its property on the west side of Sandridge Road to mitigate for the shoreline that was disturbed for the boat launch.
In 1993 the Port opened an interpretive center that is a replica of an oyster station that was located on the bay. The center's exhibits include oyster industry artifacts, historical photographs, and explanations of oyster species and cultivation techniques.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the Port upgraded and expanded its facilities. There are now 88 slips in the marina, three product hoists, an eight-ton boat hoist, power and water on the floats, a sewage pump-out station, public restrooms and showers, and a new fueling station. Boats needing repair or maintenance can be lowered onto a gridiron with the outgoing tide.
Seven oyster companies in the area land about three million pounds of oysters at the Port. They brought in more than $5 million in revenue to the area in 2003.
The Port of Peninsula Today
The Port supports efforts to improve productivity in the bay and eradicate threats. While spartina grass, an invasive species brought to the bay as packing material for Eastern oysters at the turn of the last century, has largely been brought under control, other threats plague the oyster beds. Introduced green crabs, non-native eel grass, burrowing shrimp, and oyster drills do tremendous damage to oyster beds. The oyster growers have used the pesticide carbaryl (also known by its trade name, Sevin) to control the species in the past, but have agreed to phase out the chemical's use by 2013. Research is ongoing to find a less-toxic alternative.
Additionally, oyster beds in the bay are threatened by siltation. Rising seabed levels have decreased the area of the bay that is sufficiently covered for the oysters to feed and grow fast enough to provide an economic return.
The Port would like to develop seafood processing facilities on site. Currently all seafood landed at the Port is trucked to processors in Ilwaco, South Bend, or Portland, or directly to out-of-town distributors. Plans for processing facilities have been hindered by difficulties in treating the wastewater that would be released into the bay.
New tourist attractions and facilities are being considered by the Port to promote economic growth in the community. In addition to improving restrooms, parking, and picnic facilities, the Port is studying providing access to the breakwater's base and the adjacent tidelands, building a viewing tower for bird watching, and installing additional interpretive signage. A Beach to Trail connecting Ocean Park to the Port is also being studied.
The Port of Peninsula has grown considerably from its early start providing shore access to oyster boats and gillnetters. Today it plays a vital role in the economic development of the Long Beach Peninsula through its facilities, its technical support, and its role in community development.