WILLAPA BAY — When Taylor Shellfish Farms purchased Ekone Oyster Company in February, it sent shockwaves through the Willapa Bay shellfish industry. While the Ekone staff and brand will remain in place, some wonder if consolidation of small-producers could be a continuing trend.

“There’s definitely been some consolidation over the years,” Taylor Shellfish Farms director of public affairs Bill Dewey said. “In 2007, we acquired Fanny Bay Oysters in British Columbia and basically did the same thing up there.”

Taylor is already Washington state’s largest shellfish company, and had extensive operations on Willapa Bay before the Ekone purchase.

Dewey believes a variety of factors drive companies to consolidate. For one thing, opportunities to acquire companies sometimes open up when children decide not to take over the family shellfish business.

“… The younger generations are realizing that it is a lot of work. They can go on to a career that’s not so hard on their body and is a little easier to do,” Dewey said.

Dewey said Ekone owners Nick and Joanne Jambor began talking with their kids about selling the company quite some time ago.

“Nick had talked to their children about it, hoping that they would be interested in taking over the family business, but neither of his kids was interested,” Dewey said. “So he started thinking about who he might approach to maintain the employees and continue the company name and quality of products.”

In 2011, West Coast conglomerate Pacific Seafood Group purchased Coast Seafoods Co. in South Bend, Washington, a step that generated much talk about potential consolidation in the local shellfish industry.

However, Dewey said Taylor Shellfish isn’t “out actively looking for companies to purchase and gobble up,” but saw the opportunity as a “good marriage.”

“It was a good deal for both of us,” Dewey said… While Taylor’s a big company, we’re a family-based company. It’s not a big corporation coming in and taking over the bay. We’re working toward the betterment of the industry overall, not just our company.”

Dewey said a tough regulatory climate is also making it harder for small-producers to continue on Willapa Bay.

“There are a lot of businesses that feel pressure from over-regulation, and that’s just become harder and harder for small companies to deal with. A lot are just deciding to get out.”

Burrowing shrimp, whose holes cause oysters to sink and suffocate, have become the bane of the local oyster industry.

Dewey thinks future of the oyster industry will depend largely on how much power oyster growers have to battle the destructive shrimp. Since carbaryl, a pesticide, was phased out in 2013, growers have been searching for an alternative. They settled on one, imidacloprit, and were close to applying it to shrimp-infested shellfish beds in 2015, when a torrent of bad publicity in the Seattle area caused Taylor to back out of a hard-won permit issued by the Washington Department of Ecology. Other members of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association soon followed suit, but are now seeking a new imidacloprit permit.

Searching for pesticide-free means of controlling the shrimp is “daunting,” Dewey said.

“We’ve been looking for decades for that magic bullet to control shrimp, and it doesn’t appear to exist.”

Ekone Oyster Company was founded in May 1982, after Nick Jambor built a small smokehouse for his wife’s birthday. An interest in oyster farming led them to try smoking oysters. Eventually, they decided to open a business that sold their smoked products. The business and product line have expanded over the years since, and today, Ekone has about 50 employees.

“We are very proud of the company and the team that has been built over the years,” Jambor said.

“As Joanne and I come closer to retirement, we wanted to find a way to ensure a transition for the business that supports our team and continues to operate the business consistent with our values. We have great respect for Taylor Shellfish and its commitment to pursuing sustainability in its operations.”

Taylor is a fifth-generation family shellfish farm based in Shelton. They produce Manila clams, Mediterranean mussels, geoduck as well as a variety of oyster products for American and international markets, according to the Taylor press release

The business employs about 550 and operates on 11,000 acres of tidelands along the Washington coast and in British Columbia.

Taylor also operates hatchery and nursery facilities in Hawaii and California, a shellfish distribution business in Hong Kong and three oyster bars in Seattle, and Fanny Bay Oysters in Canada.

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