OysterFest celebrates future of Southeast shellfish industry

Bob Tkacz, For the Journal

Photo/Courtesy/Governor’s office

Gov. Sean Parnell signs House Bill 121 in Juneau at OysterFest on June 6.

The bill creates several new revolving loan funds, including a $5 million pool

for developing mariculture.

JUNEAU — The economic development branch of Sealaska Corp. celebrated the first production of three Yakutat shellfish farms it helped launch, and the future of a regional aquaculture industry at the first annual Alaska Oyster Festival June 6 in Juneau.

“We can have a $30 million industry instead of a $400,000 industry,” said Anthony Lindoff, mariculture manager for Haa Aani, a wholly owned Sealaska subsidiary. The smaller figure was last year’s production from the Yakutat farms, including two that are independently owned and one as a “training platform” for future farmers.

Gov. Sean Parnell was among more than 100 guests who enjoyed “Pearl of Alaska” oysters. The occasion was also the venue for a signing ceremony for House Bill 121. Introduced at the governor’s request, the bill established independent revolving loan funds for mariculture operations, Community Quota Entities, halibut charter fishing businesses and general business microloans.

The bill allocated $5 million for mariculture, $5 million for charter operators, $10 million for CQEs and $2.5 million for microloans.

“Something important is happening. We are creating better access to capital for those folks in the mariculture industry who want to enter by creating a mariculture revolving loan fund,” Parnell said.

Commerce Department Commissioner Susan Bell, also in attendance, said Alaska shellfish, among other seafood products, are promoted on cruise ships but, “We need to grow more shellfish for them really to be able to buy.”

“We really think this will be he beginning of a new day and opportunity,” added Chris McNeil, Sealaska president and CEO. “Communities were becoming economically unviable.”

McNeil emphasized that the cooperative development of oyster farming with Southeast villages through Haa Aani is intended to reverse a regional decline.

“At the end of the day our culture and our heritage is rooted in our traditional rural communities and if we continue to have the outmigration that we have today and that we see today, then we risk losing our culture,” said Russell Dick, Haa Aani president and CEO. “That, to Sealaska and our team at Haa Aani, is unacceptable.”

Dick said “considerable impediments to economic development” remain in the region. He cited insufficient access to capital and technical assistance among the gaps. McNeil said extent of mariculture expansion has not been determined, but significant plans for regional operations have been made.

A new farm will begin operations in Angoon this year and Hydaburg could become a nursery with the installation of a “flupsy.”

Akin to a salmon hatchery, the floating upweller system, which operates on a barge or dock, forces seawater through shellfish seeds that are protected from predators in floating containers. The units allow greater seed density and increase their growth rate over natural conditions.

Kake, where Sealaska has processing and cold storage facilities, will serve as market logistics center for regional farm production, McNeil noted.

06/14/2012 - 2:10pm