(reprinted with permission from the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association)
Jerry Yamashita's life as an oysterman is testament to quiet determination. Few in the shellfish business would be here without a kind of dogged drive, but no one in the industry better characterizes that mix of qualities--will, optimism, creativity, resolve and struggle--that describes shellfish farmers.
Jerry was born in Seattle in 1923. He tells of his father, Masahide Yamashita, coming from Japan to Seattle in 1900 to seek work. An entrepreneur by nature, Masahide had tried his hands at several vocations, from photography to pearl broker to "porta-potty" services before he finally found a line that met with success. By the time Jerry came along, Masahide had launched what was to be only a temporarily successful business as a timber broker. When Jerry was only nine months old, the venture came to a crashing halt when an earthquake and fire in Tokyo wiped out a significant portion the city, killing Masahide's buyer. Left with trainloads of lumber he couldn't sell, the promising enterprise ended.

Jerry's fate as an oysterman began indirectly because of Masahide's next venture as a seafood importer and exporter. It was the 1920ss and the stocks of Olympia's oysters had reached critically low levels. Masahide increasingly received requests for Japanese oyster seed. Although the first attempts at transplanting seed form Japan met with only marginal success-- most of the seed died by the time it arrived on the West Coast--the few that survived thrived and grew quickly. Masahide expanded his seafood business by planting seed on leased tidelands in Samish Bay, adjacent to the Rock Point Oyster Company, owned by another pioneer E.N. Steele (see Tale of Two Oysters, April '98 issues of Longlines). Masahide was among the group that first formed an oyster seed growing cooperative in Japan.

Jerry was 13 when he went to work on his father's oyster beds. His budding career as an oysterman ended abruptly, however, when World War II broke out and the Yamashita family's oyster growing days were suspended.

Jerry recalls being questioned by armed military patrols when he was harvesting oysters by lantern during one late night tide in Samish Bay. "We didn't know it at the time, but a lot of things we did were illegal," Jerry reminisces. "My father's business office was on the Pier in Seattle, which was supposed to be restricted to us. Also, we weren't allowed to have short-wave radios or be in possession of sounding charts. Of course, my father had charts all the way from Alaska to California because of his oyster seed business."

"We'd also heard rumors that if you had picture of relatives from Japan, the military would haul you to jail. So, we burned our pictures and got rid of our radio. My mother and I went to my father's office and tried ripping up the sounding charts."

"We didn't know it at the time, but the FBI was already looking for my father. An elderly couple who introduced themselves to me and my mother wound up to be FBI agents. They were watching us all the time. By March of 1942, they'd arrested my father."

It was to be several months before Jerry's family learned of Masahide's whereabouts. In the meantime, Jerry, his mother, brother and sister had been taken to the Tule Lake Internment Camp. A 24' x 24' cubicle was to be the family's home for the next few years.

Eventually, Masahide was released from the Montana facility where he had been taken and was allowed to join his family in Tule Lake.

"It was very dusty and windy," Jerry explains. "We did our best to make our little cubicle homey, but there was no insulation. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer."

When Jerry was released from the internment camp in 1945 at the age of 22, he was planning to go to the Illinois Institute of Technology, but his family over-rode those desires. He turned once again to oyster farming and before long had bought tidal property in Hood Canal, dug a well, and scraped together materials to build a small shack where he both lived and worked. With these humble beginnings, Western Oyster Company was born.

Jerry purchased and leased more tidal property in the next few years and his oyster ventures were succeeding when tragedy struck again in November of 1958. His younger brother, attending Olympic Junior College at the time, had come to help Jerry harvest oysters to fill Thanksgiving orders. In an aberrant accident, Jerry's brother and two other people drowned when the small boat they were working in swamped just off-shore.

"Life is full of tragedy and suffering," Jerry explains simply.

Over the last 60-plus years, Jerry has seen more than his fair-share of challenges, but the challenges have been amply salted with joys, too. He and his wife, Dorcas have four successful, grown children, and three beautiful healthy grandchildren. Sadly, none of them have inherited Jerry's passion for shellfish farming. He credits them with having more sense than he has. Perhaps, observing his struggles, they have opted for easier ways to make a living.

Most recently, Jerry has had the dubious distinction of having had one of his growing areas (in Burley Lagoon) reclassified from restricted to conditional back to restricted again, all within a six year period of time. Another growing area, Henderson Inlet, is threatened with a down-grade as of this writing and no one is predicting any hope for turning water quality around soon enough to stop what is considered to be inevitable. His one remaining growing area, in Dabob Bay, is affected regularly by Vibrio parahaemolyticus in the hot summer months and has been shut down for the better part of two months for the past two summers.

Despite all this, Jerry's easy-going manner remains. He is the calm in the eye of the storm. Little Skookum Shellfish's Brett Bishop gratefully acknowledges Jerry's role as the shellfish industry's "lightening rod," absorbing what most people would consider to be more than his fair share of difficulties.

Whether Jerry serves as the "lightening rod" or not, he certainly has played a significant role in the business of shellfish. He is one of its founding fathers as was his father. It's impossible to imagine where the shellfish industry would be today were it not for the contributions of the Yamashita family. And Jerry's grace in the midst of hardship exemplifies oystermen at their best.

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