A small mariculture industry for Alaska – oyster farming for the most part – has been developing in fits and starts for years, and a small group of dedicated seafood entrepreneurs are working away at it, convinced the business can succeed.
Consumer demand in Alaska and the Lower 48 is steadily increasing among people who see oysters as healthy food, and who are becoming more sophisticated in their tastes.
Yes – Alaska oysters do taste better. They’re sweeter, for one thing, due to a higher sugar content and a greater exposure to salt water in Alaska gives them a slight tangy taste, says Ray RaLonde, an aquaculture scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sea Grant advisory program .
Weatherly Bates, a Kachemak Bay shellfish farmer, says Alaska oysters are more uniform in size, typically have more meat for their size than many Lower 48 oysters and are free of grit because they are grown in the water column with no contact with the ocean bottom.
Alaska itself is a big seller for oysters grown here, said Rodger Painter, a Southeast Alaska shellfish farmer and long-time industry advocate. The superior taste and Alaska’s image of having clean, pure waters have put oysters from the state at the top of the menu at trendy East Coast oyster bars like Grand Central, in New York.
Alaska oysters are at the top of the menu in price, too. Painter said Alaska oysters now have enough of a reputation to command a price advantage over Lower 48 oysters, which helps offset higher costs in growing them here.
Bates and her husband, Greg, operate their farm in Halibut Cove, in Kachemak Bay near Homer. They see shellfish farming as helping reinforce the economies of small coastal communities, like hers, that are subject to volatile seasonal fisheries.
Greg Bates fishes commercially for cod part of the year, but the couple, who have two young children, hope to combine that with shellfish farming to make a good living in Halibut Cove.
They are also working to develop a new farmed shellfish product, mussels.
Earlier this year the state awarded a $300,000 grant to the Halibut Cove Community Organization, a nonprofit, for the Bates to develop mussel-producing rafts as a demonstration. The rafts are being built this year.
Married to mariculture
Weatherly and Greg Bates have a lot of experience in shellfish farming. They’re both New England-raised, and on farms; Weatherly has a degree in aquaculture and fisheries technology from the University of Rhode Island. The two raised oysters in Maine for four years including a stint managing an oyster farm at a nonprofit affiliated with Jamie Wyeth in Maine. This involved a 16-acre oyster farm and hatchery, where the couple increased production from 10,000 to 200,000 oysters a year.
Intrigued by Alaska, they pulled up stakes, headed north, and became interested in Kachemak Bay when the state began leasing tracts for oyster farms in the area. In 2010 the two secured their own 9-acre farm site in Halibut Cove, across the bay from Homer.
Oysters from Alaska Shellfish Farms, owned and operated by the Bates, are sold in the Homer area and in Anchorage. The two also operate an oyster nursery, a facility that matures young oyster seeds from spat, or oyster eggs, brought in from specialized oyster hatcheries.
Weatherly sees oyster farming at this point as “kind of a hobby” for many growers, but she sees possibilities particularly when other shellfish like mussels are brought into the mix.
“We see huge possibilities,” for mussels, she said.
Penn Cove Shellfish, in Washington State, is the biggest mussel farmer in the U.S., producing more than 2 million pounds per year. There are also farms in New England and the eastern maritime provinces of Canada, regions the Bates are familiar with, that produce tens of millions of pounds a year.
There’s no reason why Alaska can do this in mussels and other shellfish, particularly since good sites for new shellfish farms are becoming scarce in establishing producing regions, like the Pacific Northwest, Bates said. In contrast, there are many good potential sites in Alaska coastal communities from Southeast to Southcentral.
Salmon farms are now a fixture in many parts of the world (they are illegal in Alaska) but Bates feels oysters and other shellfish have strategic advantages over salmon farms anywhere.
Free feed, spendy seeds
The main advantage is that farmed salmon have to be fed in their pens, a cost shellfish farms don’t bear because oysters and mussels don’t have to be fed. They consume algae and other natural nutrients in the water.
They don’t pollute, either, a second key advantage as far as Bates is concerned.
“Shellfish farming is so much better for the environment. They filter the water and make it cleaner,” she said, in contrast to salmon farms, which can cause pollution.
Long hours of summer daylight in the north is also an advantage in that the light creates more phytoplankton nutrients in the water, which helps shellfish grow faster.
There are challenges, however. For oysters, the main one is that oysters are not native to Alaska. They grow well, but Alaska waters are too cold for them to propagate and make spat, or seed. To deal with this oyster farmers have to buy seed from hatcheries.
Unfortunately, the one spat hatchery in Alaska, in Seward, is engaged in a retooling and is not currently operating. Spat can meanwhile be purchased from hatcheries on the west coast, but production at these are being curtailed because of an upwelling of acidic ocean water off the coast.
Hatchery operators are working on ways to deal with this and the Seward hatchery will be back in production at some point (Alaska waters are so far not affected by acidity), but the shortage of spat is now a major problem for the industry all over the west coast.
Mussels, in contrast to oysters, are native to Alaska and prolific. The big challenge for mussel farmers is that sea otters love to eat mussels. The solution is enclosures around the mussel rafts to keep the sea otters out, Bates said. One of the goals at the first commercial mussel rafts Bates is developing at Halibut Cove is to see what kind of otter-protection enclosures work best.
There are other unknowns, too, Bates admits.
“We could find unexpected fouling organisms, or problems with starfish and barnacles. It will take some time to figure it out, through trial and error, just like any farming,” she said.
Rodger Painter said there is still a lot of tinkering with the technology used in producing oysters. Most oyster farms involve rafts anchored in a cove with wire-mesh trays stacked down into the water column. Water circulates through the tray stacks, bringing nutrients.
Variations on this are in use, such as a Japanese device that looks like a shrimp pot. A third approach being experimented with, Painter said, involves a type of plastic bag mesh that can be placed at or near surface in the inter-tidal zone.
The advantage of this is that there are more nutrients at the surface, and tidal action keeps water circulating. Front-end capital costs are lower, and there is typically less labor. The disadvantage is that water movement can damage the bags, Painter said. Most oyster farmers may wind up using some combination of technologies, he said.
The economics of oyster farming are meanwhile linked to how long it takes to produce a marketable batch. In the Pacific Northwest, where waters are warmer, it takes one to two years, Painter said. In Southeast Alaska’s cool waters it usually takes three years. Water temperatures in Kachemak Bay are cooler yet, and it can take four to five years.
Bates said this is a key problem with oysters that faces her. Smaller-size oysters be produced in three years in Kachemak Bay but consumers and restaurant owners in the Anchorage area have to be educated that these are just as tasty as older, larger oysters.
Painter said consumers in the Pacific Northwest, who are more sophisticated about shellfish, prefer the smaller oysters.
The human side is important, too, because shellfish farming isn’t for everyone. Shellfish farms are typically small “Mom and Pop” operations. Painter believes it has a lot of potential, “but you have to be smart in what you are doing, do your homework and make the right decisions to avoid investing in the wrong technology at the start.”
A typical small oyster farmer will need about $200,000 to get into operation but a lot depends on who the farmer is, whether he or she has assets at hand like boats or a place to live or stay near the site.
Supporting the operation is relatively low-tech, “but it’s 24-7 for seven months of the year,” Painter said.
Commercial fishermen are ideally suited for oyster farming because they have experience on the water and with boats, and have marine equipment at hand.
Painter said he knows oyster farmers who successfully run farms as a sideline to commercial fishing, the challenge being that the sites have to be tended while the owner is away fishing.
Some communities are embracing shellfish farming to create a local economy. In Naukagi, a small community on Price of Wales Island in Southeast, community leaders organized a facility to people develop small rafts and learn about oyster farming before moving with the own facilities, Painter said. He worked to help train people there.
There is more support for the infant industry these days, too. Haa Aani, a Sealaska Corp. subsidiary in Juneau that works on regional development projects, is actively working with small oyster farms in several Southeast communities, providing business expertise and other assistance.
The state Legislature also approved a special mariculture loan program last spring that is just now being put into effect.