“The Immigrant Oyster”: Labor, Immigration, and Eco-Racism on Washington’s Tidelands

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kathleen N. Fry, Washington State University at Pullman
By the late nineteenth century, oyster capitalists’ over-exploitation of the tidelands in Washington State led to the near extinction of the native oyster there and growers feared they were on the brink of destruction. By the 1920s intrepid businessmen had successfully transplanted the Japanese oyster into Washington’s waters. The introduction of the foreign oyster, while delighting oyster men, sparked an environmental debate among scientists and government officials regarding the scientific wisdom of placing a potentially dangerous species into Washington’s waters. Significantly, that discussion took on a distinctly eco-racist tone as detractors labeled the seed oysters a “new Japanese immigration peril” and claimed their profound fertility would choke out the natives. Their words reflected the nation’s general opposition—as evidenced by the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act—to continued immigration of Asian peoples to America at this time; their fear of a dilution of the Caucasian race through possible social, cultural, and sexual intermixing; their proclivity to blame Asian immigrants for the problems afflicting American labor; and their insistence that such individuals could never assimilate. Supporters—many of whom understood the pivotal role that Japanese immigrant labor had played in the development and growth of the statewide industry— anthropomorphized the Japanese oyster, praising its assimilation into and contribution to Washington’s oyster industry, but remained somewhat ambivalent about the oyster’s (i.e. immigrant’s) place in the body politic. They also expressed wariness at their continued dependence on a country they believed to be too culturally different from themselves. This paper, therefore, explores the intersectionality of race, immigration and the environment as it played out on Washington’s intertidal zone in the 1920s and 1930s.