Brett Bishop
Photo by Joanna Kresge

Four times daily, Brett and Lisa Bishop can stand on their property that fronts Little Skookum Inlet’s shoreline and watch the tide ebb and flow, inhale and exhale, exposing and covering a bounty of bivalves that has sustained a family business, Little Skookum Shellfish Growers, for more than 150 years.

The inlet’s tide refreshes and rewards, its strong currents delivering plankton, algae, and other nutrients to shellfish that pock the exposed and muddy seabed. 

Manila clams grow to the size of golf balls, while Kumamoto, Olympia, and Pacific oysters resemble large, fist-sized shards. The shellfish conceal slippery and delicious meat that provides local jobs and keeps a family tradition alive.

“This has been a prime place to live for thousands of years because everything you need is here,” Brett Bishop observed. 

It was low tide, and Bishop, 59, wore rubber boots, faded blue jeans, an all-weather parka, and a baseball cap. 

He stood on the seabed’s mealy porridge of mud, sand, and shell chafe that made a cereal-crunching sound underfoot as he raked the surface searching for those prized clams and oysters. 

“This is a renewing and rejuvenating place,” he added.

Bishop’s family connection to this land runs deeper than the water level at high tide.

Irish immigrant Jeremiah Lynch (Bishop’s great-great-great-uncle) arrived in America in 1849, one of hundreds of thousands of people lured to the West Coast by the California Gold Rush. Gold never made Lynch a rich man. Instead, he settled in the Washington Territory, where, in 1883, he established a homestead along Little Skookum Inlet and found opportunity in shellfish, another valuable natural resource. 

Some 50 years later, the property was handed down to Lynch’s niece, Marguerite Lynch Bishop, who, in 1932, used local timber to build a Cape Cod-style, three-story home.

In 1978, Brett’s father, Frank, sold his construction business and bought the shellfish farm from Marguerite, his aunt. Frank and his wife, Marie, moved to Shelton, where they raised five children — Brett, Ernest, Ralph, Sara, and Susie — and oversaw the shellfish operation. 

By 1980, Brett, who joined the Navy at age 17 and spent the next three years in service, went to work at the family business.

Brett’s father died three years ago at age 101. His mother died last year at age 100. The couple was married for 80 years.

Today, one creek, two coves, and the main road connecting Highway 101 in Shelton to the 36-acre homestead all carry the Lynch name. 

The ashes of Brett’s mother, father, and other close relatives were scattered in Lynch Creek, a gurgling passage of water enclosed by a thick copse of Douglas fir and cedar trees. It’s also where, each November, thousands of chum salmon crowd the creek to spawn.

According to Brett, he and Lisa bought out his siblings’ share in the property and business — a costly move the couple is still paying off today. Still, Brett and Lisa are the sole owners, operators, and stewards of this legacy shellfish farm.

Little Skookum Shellfish Growers is located fewer than 20 miles northwest of downtown Olympia. On a map, Little Skookum Inlet is one of more than a half-dozen inlets named after 19th-century explorers — such as Budd, Case, Carr, Dyes, Eld, Henderson, Sinclair, and Totten — that fan out like capillaries from central Puget Sound. Skookum is a Chinook word that means “strong” or “powerful.”

“This place means everything to us,” Bishop reflected. “It’s more than a place to live. It’s more than a business. It’s sacred ground. My wife and I are totally committed to it, which is the most
incredible thing.”

Jeremiah Lynch, founder of Little Skookum Shellfish Growers in Shelton, surveys an oyster bed circa-1920. 
Courtesy Little Skookum Shellfish Growers

Long before Lynches or Bishops arrived, Native American tribes lived on these shores, harvesting shellfish in the winter, fishing for salmon in the summer, and hunting elk and deer year-round. 

Brett said he found remnants of four distinct tribal villages that once existed along the inlet’s shoreline, and discovered arrowheads, stone axes, and middens — piles of shells discarded after clam and oyster meat are cooked and eaten.

“There was never a time when you had to go hungry here,” said Bishop. 

Indeed, this stretch of Little Skookum Inlet is so fertile, two other productive legacy shellfish operations — Taylor Shellfish Farms (est. 1890) and J. J. Brenner Oyster Co. (est. 1893) — are headquartered along Southeast Lynch Road.

Today, the Bishops’ company employs 28 people who harvest approximately 9,000 pounds of shellfish (95 percent of the haul is clams, while five percent is oysters) per week, shipping it to restaurants and wholesalers throughout the United States. You can purchase Little Skookum Shellfish Growers’ clams and oysters at Mutual Fish Company in Seattle.

In those brief, hours-long tidal windows, workers clad in all-weather boots and coveralls blanket the shoreline on foot, and carry buckets, dredgers, and digging forks (at night, head lamps, which bob and weave like pugilistic fireflies, are donned). 

Workers sweep the shoreline like crime scene investigators, filling buckets with 30 pounds of clams in an area so fertile (some 100 clams per square foot, according to Bishop), a single bucket can be filled in fewer than 10 minutes.

Upland and across the way from the Bishops‘ home, the clams and oysters are transported to a production facility and inspected, counted, weighed, and placed in bright-yellow polyethylene resin knitted bags and boxed for shipment. The old production facility, built on stilts a century ago, still stands, but is used today as a staging area for workers to don all-weather gear before heading out to harvest.

The process is conducted entirely by hand, and fewer than 30 minutes elapse between the time the shellfish are pulled from the inlet and prepared for shipment. 

Each spring, workers plant 60 million clam seeds in a floating, upwelling system that protects them against predators such as birds, crabs, and moon snails. 

Three months later, the clams, which have grown to the size of pebbles, are sprinkled into the inlet, where they flutter down and burrow into the seabed with a small, footlike appendage. 

Half of the clams will be eaten by crab, fish, and shrimp, according to Bishop. The remaining clams will grow to maturity and be harvested, processed, and shipped to wholesalers and restaurants around the world.

Still, shellfish harvesting is a tough business to operate. 

According to Brett, all the money earned is put back into the company, and he and his wife work day jobs. Brett works full-time as a geoduck diver for another seafood company. Lisa is a school counselor. 

In recent years, the couple has sold off portions of their property that weren’t income-producing assets, such as uplands across the bay, and a five-acre swath that included a more modern home where Brett’s parents lived out their final years.

Meanwhile, much of the day-to-day shellfish harvesting operations are overseen by general manager Carl Barringer, who has worked at Little Skookum Shellfish Growers for more than 40 years. 

Brett and Lisa have two sons. Jeremiah, 25, is a volunteer firefighter and works alongside his father as a geoduck diver. Justin, 23, is an IT specialist with the Yelm School District. According to Brett, it’s unclear whether either of them will assume stewardship of the family business in the future. 

“Maybe the older son with the strong back will take my role, and the younger son with the strong brain will take my wife’s role,” he said. “They have to choose it. It wouldn’t mean what it means to me if I didn’t choose it. The essence of my job is to keep this farm together so that if my kids want to continue it, they could.”