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Villages plant seeds of oyster industry.

In the last year, villagers of Tatitlek have begun to develop a taste for oysters. And good thing, because if all goes as planned, residents of this tiny Prince William Sound community may soon be able to begin harvesting and selling up to 700,000 of the succulent shellfish. "This has taken off like we never dreamed," says Gary Kompkoff, village chief and president of the Tatitlek Village IRA Council, the village's traditional Native organization. "Yes, the village is very supportive of the project."

"They're really doing very, very well," says David Daisy, a consultant to the village. Observing Tatitlek's success, the village of Chenega Bay also plans to enter the mariculture business this spring. The village has applied for state permits that would allow residents to plant 1 million baby oysters, or spat, in three different sites. Each location is within eyesight of the village.

About 30 villagers have been trained in the business of oystering and seed has been ordered. The results of a small, sample test indicated that oysters planted near Chenega Bay not only survived, but grew. Daisy says villagers in Eyak, near Cordova, also are eyeing the oyster business.

"I'm so excited to see that the villages are trying to get some type of economic development," says Jayne Sontag, executive director of the non-profit Prince William Sound Economic Development Council. "They need something besides the fish," she says. Villagers traditionally have been dependent on salmon markets.

Like residents of several remote Alaska villages, residents of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay have long searched for a source of income -- and more importantly, of meaningful employment -- that would complement their subsistence-based lifestyle, explains Kompkoff. Village residents are eager for jobs, but not at the risk of altering a lifestyle that has sustained them for generations. A feasibility study done three years ago by the Chugach Regional Resource Commission, a non-profit arm of the Native regional corporation, identified a possible solution: oyster farming.

"They're ideally suited for it," says Daisy, author of the report. "There are very few opportunities for those people in their villages." Daisy explains that both Tatitlek and Chenega Bay are located on rich fishing grounds ("God's country," says Kompkoff), with villagers providing a ready labor pool. More importantly, oyster farming doesn't require constant attention and so allows residents to pursue other traditional activities.

As of February, state permits had been issued for 56 aquatic farms, says Jim Cochran, mariculture coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Of those, 37 reported some activity in 1991. The majority of the farms are located in Prince William Sound and Kachemak Bay. Most produce oysters, although the permits allow for the growing of blue mussels, scallops, clams and other shellfish.

Other oyster farms are located near Kodiak and in Southeast Alaska. Although a formal state program concerning shellfish operations has only been in existence since 1988, Cochran says the state's first oyster farms were started in Ketchikan in the early 1900s.

One million oyster spat flown in from Washington state and California hatcheries were planted last May in three different sites near Tatitlek. Adult oysters cannot reproduce in Alaska's icy waters, forcing farmers to import spat from Outside. Supply from Outside markets is tight, and Daisy hopes that someday Alaska will be able to support a local hatchery.

Although up to 30 Tatitlek residents received at least some training in handling the oyster spat, a core group of about eight villagers spent nearly two months separating the spat, placing them in mesh nets and then attaching those nets to buoy lines, says Kompkoff. Spat arrived by air in shipments of about 100,000.

State and federal grants, along with some village monies, paid for startup costs. "We weren't sure how this was going to work out and so we were very uncomfortable borrowing money," says Kompkoff. The grants and village expenditures total some $655,000 and also will cover startup costs in Chenega Bay.

Daisy estimates that Pacific oysters, such as those grown in the villages, will sell for between 35 cents and 50 cents each. Villagers will have to pay themselves a wage, buy additional spat, buy equipment and pay air freight, once the oysters are cleaned and boxed for market.

In Tatitlek, the village council didn't get into the oyster business to make money for itself, says Kompkoff, but rather to give villagers the training and wages needed to start their own oyster farms. Future marketing is expected to be done through a central organization. Any profit this year will be put back into the program, he explains.

Marketing, say those involved, is key to the project's success and may become an issue quicker than expected. It usually takes spat two years to reach market size, says Daisy. The growth rate in Tatitlek has been such, however, that some oysters should be ready for harvest this summer, after just 14 months. Although good so far, each year can be different, Daisy cautions.

He expects that villagers will be able to send 1,200 oysters a week to market by midsummer. "We're being conservative until we know what we've got."

Based on traditional, two-year growth rates, spat planted this spring in Chenega Bay should be ready for market by August 1993. Oysters can be harvested year-round.

Daisy would like to see village-grown oysters earn brand recognition -- such as that given to Alaska salmon or Texas beef -- so that they can secure a niche in the marketplace. Strict testing will allow villagers to market a safe oyster, something that is of great concern to growers and to consumers. "We want to be able to say, 'This is as clean as it gets.' We want top of the line trade," notes Daisy.

Fish and Game's Cochran adds, "We believe that they can be competitive. The market's there."

In addition to entering the mariculture business, village leaders in Chenega Bay also are hoping to build a marine service center. The center, estimated to cost between $7 million and $10 million, would be built on the site of a dilapidated herring saltry.

The center likely would include such services as net and small-engine repair, fresh water, fuel and showers, says Darrell Totemoff, administrator of the Chenega Bay IRA Council. Totemoff says fishing fleets along the western side of Prince William Sound now must travel to Seward or Whittier for goods and services, trips that can be costly in terms of lost time and earnings.

The service center has been a part of village development plans since the 1964 earthquake forced villagers to rebuild their village on new ground. Totemoff says the village will seek state and federal monies to first remove the saltry and then to construct the center.
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Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Previous Article:Know Alaska: Prince William Sound, Valdez-Cordova Census Area, including Glennallen.
Next Article:Communications stampede; enhanced features and improved technology continue to revamp business communications.

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