Printer Friendly

Cultivating Alaska's shellfish industry.

FOR ALASKANS WITH MONEY shell out, this may be the year to consider entering a new business-raising oysters. This past fall, after a year' effort at writing regulations, the state's Department of Natural Resources implemented a 1988 law designed to speed the flow of permits to Alaskans seeking to lease tidelands as sites for shellfish farms.

The industry largely has been treading water the past few years. But although the application process to let newcomers enter one part of the state's potential mariculture industry is closed again until this coming fall, the fact that there now is a set procedure people can follow to enter shellfish mariculture should get development of the industry floating again.

It is an industry everyone agrees has high promise, but which so far hasn't made many waves in Alaska's economy. Supporters of shellfish farming agree that the state may need to do more probably at the least making state loans available to help farmers with their startup costs-before things begin going swimmingly for the industry.

This fall the state began implementing the legislature's 1988 shellfish bill, which removed a moratorium on development of new shellfish operations: raising oysters, mussels, shrimp or scallops or growing seaweed-kelp.

Gary Gustafson, director of the state's Division of Land & Water Management, says under terms of the new law, the 18 existing farms in Alaska, plus all newcomers, had to apply during the 60-day period this past fall to gain a new temporary 3-year permit to operate farms. If operations prove or continue to prove successful during the next three years, the farmers will be granted 10-year leases on their tidelands - a period that should be long enough to permit amortization of any loans the farms may need.

Alaska's shellfish farms currently are producing about 10,000 oysters a week. Although farms yield predominantly oysters, some blue mussels are being produced at Halibut Cove and kelp at a site near Kodiak. Oysters are being marketed to restaurants in Anchorage and Juneau primarily and also through seafood wholesalers in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.

While the majority of farms are located in Southeast - many around Wrangell-Alaska's largest farm is found in Southcentral's Prince William Sound. Farming efforts also are increasing in Kachemak Bay.

With its 34,000 miles of coastline, the 49th state has hundreds of coves that could support shellfish production, including shrimp and abalone, and allow Alaska to break into the aquatic farming industry in a big way. "There is certainly a great deal of potential for mariculture," says Gustafson.

In 1987 - the latest year for which data is available - Washington produced $10.4 million worth of oysters and $3.5 million worth of clams. California was expected to net between $20 million and $30 million from mariculture in 1989, and British Columbia expects to net $15 million from oyster production in 1990.

The largest oyster farm in the state, located outside Cordova, now has two million oysters in the water. Don Nicholson of Wrangell owns what is probably the second largest farm. He has been working his farm, located toward the north end of Clarence Strait on Etolin Island, for the past eight years.

Nicholson says he has about 500,000 oysters currently in the water. He harvests about 200 dozen oysters a week, shipping via Alaska Airlines each Wednesday to markets in juneau, Anchorage and the Lower 48.

"This really is a lot of work," says Nicholson. "Oysters require continuous tending even in winter. You really have to like the work, because the profit margin is very thin. The business is really very competitive." In a Nutshell. Oyster farming sounds simple. Baby oysters, or spat, in the form of larvae one-quarter to three-eighths inches in size and resembling oatmeal are placed for a number of months in plastic trays suspended in saltwater by floats. When the oysters reach an inch in size, they are moved into floating net pens, which can be purchased from Europe or made from logs. The shellfish don't require commercial feed; twice daily they are served the nutrients of the sea by the tides.

Typically oysters grow to the marketable size of three to three-and-a-half inches in diameter in about two years. During that time, they occasionally must be defouled"-raised from the ocean, rinsed and cleaned to remove barnacles, scallops or mussels that attach themselves to the oysters' shells. Also, the trays and net pens have to be cleaned every several months to remove sea creatures that attach themselves to the equipment and can damage it.

John Nielsen, president of Alaska Shellfish Growers Association and part owner of Mosman Joe Oysters, located near Coffman Cove south of Wrangell, says his partner and he try to physically clean all of their 300,000 oysters every other month. "If you can keep them defouled, you can increase their price," explains Nielsen, who works on the North Slope every other week.

"To find a market, we have to carve a niche and my niche is that I supply chefs with better smelling, cleaner oysters than other growers. The more you can do to cut down a chefs preparation time, the more likely he'll be to consistently buy your product."

Nielsen says he has no trouble selling the 100 dozen oysters a week he produces and has found markets in which to sell far larger numbers. "I'm between a rock and hard place. I could grab a far larger share of the state market, but I don't have the capital to buy the equipment to raise more oysters. And unless I can guarantee I can service my clients year-round, it is suicidal for me to take on new accounts," he adds.

Farmers also need capital to start their businesses. Tideland leases, for which the state charges $50 an acre a year, are among the smallest costs. A far bigger expense is either buying or building the floating pens that must be especially sturdy to withstand Alaska's storms.

Nicholson says the average farmer needs at least $100,000 in startup capital, partly because there is no return on the investment for two years. Another expense, about $3,500 for each 100,000 baby oysters, stems from an oddity of oyster growing in Alaska-the water is too cold for adult oysters to reproduce, so spat must be bought from Outside.

All spat used by Alaskan oyster farmers traditionally has been purchased from Lower 48 hatcheries, usually from a Washington hatchery on the San Juan Islands. This summer, however, that hatchery had an unusual die-off and had no excess spat to sell to Alaska farmers for brood stock.

The lack of spat was almost a disaster for the developing industry, according to Nielsen. It wasn't, only because Wrangell's Nicholson had sent some of his adult oysters to California last year to be raised there. They produced enough spat-four crops a year on average-to provide his operation with new spat and to provide additional spat to sell to Alaska farmers.

Nicholson says spat from Alaska grown oysters seem to grow much faster and larger when returned to the state's colder waters than baby oysters from Lower 48 strains. "We seem to be lucky in that our oysters grow as fast, if not faster, than those in Puget Sound," he notes. Startup Steps. Oyster farmers would like the state to pony up the estimated $1 million cost of a local hatchery to produce enough spat to prevent the industry from being dependent on Outside hatcheries. That would more securely anchor the young industry and improve its prospects, they contend.

Each Monday oyster farmers must send samples of oysters ready for sale to the state's laboratory at Palmer to be tested for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). The farmers would like to see more lab workers assigned to conduct the tests or have a second lab equipped to conduct the tests closer to Southeast. That would make oyster shipments more dependable, reducing the possibility of shipment delays because of poor weather delaying flights and, thus, the receipt of the key test results.

Oyster farmers say mariculture farmers need to be permitted to obtain capita from the state's agriculture or fisheries revolving loan funds. Also on their wis list is for fishermen to become less fearful of shellfish farming.

Nielsen and Gustafson admit that commercial fishermen, who dislike the idea of commercial fin fish farming, are fearful that shellfish mariculture may prove only the first step toward lawmakers approving fin fish farming in Alaska. For that reason, fishermen have tended to object to most proposed shellfish permits.

Another conflict is that many of the prime mariculture sites are in isolated bays where commercial fishing often occurs right up to the beach, and fishermen object to establishment of any floating pens or other structures that would occupy prime fishing grounds. Areas of potential habitat conflict include parts of Kachemak Bay and Prince William Sound, according to Gustafson.

He says the state has attempted to defuse fishermen's concerns over other types of mariculture by making permits for oyster or other types of shellfish farms good only for a specified type of mariculture. The aim is to make it impossible for existing farms to automatically convert to fin fish farming, should lawmakers vote to allow salmon mariculture in addition to the existing salmon aquaculture in the state.

A moratorium against fin fish farming is slated to expire later this year. A legislative-appointed task force is studying the issue, with a report due to lawmakers later this month.

If all the political and financial problems surrounding shellfish farming are settled, oyster farmers still will face the logistical hassles of opening a new industry. For one, relatively few good sites are available near existing jet airports - an important consideration for marketing the oysters.

Says Nielsen, "I really don't see a fantastic growth for the industry any time soon. There isn't enough capital or enough people who really will want to get into it. The best sites biologically are remote sites, where water quality is best, but sites without the conveniences people want if they are going to live there year-round and sites where marketing efforts are more difficult."

Nicholson says shellfish farmers must absorb freight costs; face the dangers

that bad weather will delay flights and harm delivery schedules and, thus, marketing reputations; and experiment constantly to find new ways to do things better. "Every year we experiment and do things differently to try to improve quality and increase production. It will be a long time before Alaska production becomes routine," says Nicholson.

A case in point comes from a small test farm started by Juneau residents Reed Stoops and Rodger Painter at Funter Bay outside Juneau. According to Stoops, they had placed their oysters in pens under the gangplank at the state dock at Funter Bay. During an unusually extreme low tide last summer, the plank swung close enough to shore to smash a number of their oysters while in the pens.

"We had a lot of oysters in half shells," jokes Stoops, who says he's looking for a better site before again diving into the oyster business. But he intends to try again. "They were growing really well," he says.

There is no question that biologically a shellfish industry can develop in Alaska. It remains a question, however, whether it will. 14, being dependent on Outside hatcheries. That would more securely anchor the young industry and improve its prospects, they contend.

Each Monday oyster farmers must send samples of oysters ready for sale to the state's laboratory at Palmer to be tested for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). The farmers would like to see more lab workers assigned to conduct the tests or have a second lab equipped to conduct the tests closer to Southeast. That would make oyster shipments more dependable, reducing the possibility of shipment delays because of poor weather delaying flights and, thus, the receipt of the key test results.

Oyster farmers say mariculture farmers need to be permitted to obtain capital from the state's agriculture or fisheries revolving loan funds. Also on their wis list is for fishermen to become less fearful of shellfish farming.

Nielsen and Gustafson admit that commercial fishermen, who dislike the idea of commercial fin fish farming, are fearful that shellfish mariculture may prove only the first step toward lawmakers approving fin fish farming in Alaska. For that reason, fishermen have tended to object to most proposed shellfish permits.

Another conflict is that many of the prime mariculture sites are in isolated bays where commercial fishing often occurs right up to the beach, and fishermen object to establishment of any floating pens or other structures that would occupy prime fishing grounds. Areas of potential habitat conflict include parts of Kachemak Bay and Prince William Sound, according to Gustafson.

He says the state has attempted to defuse fishermen's concerns over other types of mariculture by making permits for oyster or other types of shellfish farms good only for a specified type of mariculture. The aim is to make it impossible for existing farms to automatically convert to fin fish farming, should lawmakers vote to allow salmon mariculture in addition to the existing salmon aquaculture in the state.

A moratorium against fin fish farming is slated to expire later this year. A legislative-appointed task force is studying the issue, with a report due to lawmakers later this month.

If all the political and financial problems surrounding shellfish farming are settled, oyster farmers still will face the logistical hassles of opening a new industry. For one, relatively few good sites are available near existing jet airports - an important consideration for marketing the oysters.

Says Nielsen, "I really don't see a fantastic growth for the industry any time soon. There isn't enough capital or enough people who really will want to get into it. The best sites biologically are remote sites, where water quality is best, but sites without the conveniences people want if they are going to live there year-round and sites where marketing efforts are more difficult."

Nicholson says shellfish farmers must absorb freight costs; face the dangers that bad weather will delay flights and harm delivery schedules and, thus, marketing reputations; and experiment constantly to find new ways to do things better. "Every year we experiment and do things differently to try to improve quality and increase production. It will be a long time before Alaska production becomes routine," says Nicholson.

A case in point comes from a small test farm started by Juneau residents Reed Stoops and Rodger Painter at Funter Bay outside Juneau. According to Stoops, they had placed their oysters in pens under the gangplank at the state dock at Funter Bay. During an unusually extreme low tide last summer, the plank swung close enough to shore to smash a number of their oysters while in the pens.

"We had a lot of oysters in half shells," jokes Stoops, who says he's looking for a better site before again diving into the oyster business. But he intends to try again. "They were growing really well," he says.

There is no question that biologically a shellfish industry can develop in Alaska. It remains a question, however, whether it will.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kleeschulte, Chuck
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:2529
Previous Article:Lowell A. Wakefield.
Next Article:Number grubbing when it counts.
Topics:


Related Articles
Alaska's trade with Canada: overlooking the obvious.
Villages plant seeds of oyster industry.
Tax time for frontier fishermen.
Troubled waters: Alaska fisheries review.
Alaska fish commerce.
RON LONG: QUTEKCAK SHELLFISH HATCHERY.
Farmed fish. (From the Publisher).
Murkowski administration reaches out to fishing industry: plan targets individuals and communities, as well as increases marketing efforts.
The wonderful (and profitable) world of geoducs: the bottom line is good for this Southeast shellfish.
Fishing industry huge in Alaska: fifty percent of U.S. seafood production is produced in the state.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters