USDA program boosts tech, oysters, beer

Over the last three years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has invested more than $153 million in at least 25 Southeast Alaska economic development projects.


Far from being one large lump of cash, the department and its agencies have distributed strategic sums to public-private projects as varied as a $2.75 million technical center in Ketchikan, a nearly half-million dollar biomass energy system at Alaska Brewing Co. in Juneau and $99,000 worth of oyster farmer training at OceansAlaska’s new $1 million mariculture research, training and development center in George Inlet.

Originally intended as a marine aquarium and tourist attraction, OceansAlaska’s goal changed to adapt to public opinion and funding costs, said Tom Henderson, Oceans Alaska Mariculture Director and oyster farmer.

“An aquarium is a very expensive project,” Henderson said.

The project has been in planning for nearly two decades and though OceansAlaska had its supporters during this time, its detractors played a role in its change of purpose.

“Some local tour operators saw an aquarium as a government funded project that was going to compete with private enterprise,” Henderson said. “Now we consider ourselves a marine research facility currently concentrated on mariculture.”

The center is located on 28 acres granted by the state of Alaska and Ketchikan Gateway Borough in 2006. Its mission is to “contribute significant and sustainable long term economic growth to coastal Alaskan communities by supporting Alaska’s shellfish industry,” according to OceansAlaska’s website. That industry brings in more than half a million dollars a year in Alaska, according to the Pacific Coast shellfish Growers Association.

The floating facility is made up of the 1,750-square-foot center on a 120-foot, 1 million pound concrete barge.

Henderson said the center will offer its first mariculture classes starting in spring 2012. The classes will focus on oyster farming.

“Our cooperative effort with (the Department of Labor & Workforce Development) should have apprenticeship classes available this spring,” Henderson said. “Additional educational material will be available later in the summer.”

OceansAlaska plans to make oyster farming accessible to almost anyone. The center will open its information to the public and “I suspect we will have mini-courses or seminars available and open to anyone who wishes to participate. Our goal is to make information available and encourage participation in mariculture,” Henderson said.

He said a successful oyster farmer requires a wide range of skills.

“A new grower should understand some biology of the species of interest, some understanding of marine ecological relationships, how to work the different types of growout gear and the pros and cons of different methods, how to handle the shellfish, how to select a suitable site, plus some basic business skills,” Henderson said.

Henderson said oyster growers also need to learn how to navigate bureaucracies.

Growers are working in public water, in public waterways and on public beaches, he said. Therefore all growers work with three state agencies — the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Fish & Game and the Department of Natural Resources. A grower may also have to work with the state Park Service, the federal Forest Service (for uplands use), the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Food and Drug Agency.

“The state agencies require permits and substantial fees before shellfish can be grown and sold,” Henderson said.

OceansAlaska will also conduct research at its George Inlet facility.

“We are just getting started,” Henderson said. “Our first project is to set oyster and geoduck spat for Alaska growers to address the current critical lack of commercially available spat.”

The goal is to provide spat to farmers and also collect data on operating cost of a hatchery, especially the manpower and energy costs, Henderson said.

The oyster’s lifecycle starts with free-swimming larva, which eventually attach to a hard surface, called spat. Oysters farmers raise their bivalves from spat to the size customers find at restaurants and seafood markets.

The mariculture industry met in Ketchikan this fall to set industry priorities. Priority was given to research into the production of oyster and geoduck spat, the expansion of nursery capacity, ocean acidification monitoring, paralytic shellfish poisoning and depuration of oyster and geoducks, Henderson said.

The center’s operation funding will come from a mix of tuition, research grants and federal and state funding.

Henderson knows the difficulty of starting an oyster farm from scratch with little outside help.

A lifelong Alaskan, Henderson said he worked in salmon hatcheries since he was in high school and has fished salmon while at ADF&G.

“So I have a long-term interest is the marine environment,” Henderson said. “An oyster farm seemed like a good way to work on my own, at my own business, live in a place I enjoy (in Kake). Growing oysters seemed like an excellent opportunity to match my interests.”

Henderson said he would have benefited from training like that offered at OceansAlaska.

“When I started in 1994, I knew only one other grower,” Henderson said. “There was no place to look for up-to-date information on costs, on equipment, on best growout methods.”

He said he ended up inventing all his own routines and some of his equipment.

“In retrospect,” Henderson said, “I certainly should have traveled to British Columbia to learn from successful growers in that area. A ready source of information like OceansAlaska would have been a big help and would probably have moved my farm into profitability much sooner.”

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Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at


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