KAKE — Timber, construction and commercial fisheries are down, the cannery closed decades ago, and the salmon hatchery here is closing next month. The Organized Village of Kake, the Hoonah Indian Association and organizers across Southeast have another hope: oyster farming.
Oysters aren’t native to Southeast Alaska, and oyster farming isn’t new here, but Alaskan oysters have advantages over those grown in warmer climes, oyster bars are ever popular, and teamwork, say farms’ proponents, can help make it a lucrative effort. Other kinds of shellfish farming provide even more opportunities.
The Southeast Soil and Conservation District, a recently created entity that aims to become a clearinghouse for information and opportunities across Southeast Alaska, hosted a workshop on shellfish farming in Kake at the beginning of this month.
Along with the Soil and Water District, representatives from the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, the Organized Village of Kake, the Hoonah Indian Association and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game attended the workshop. Haa Aaní, Sealaska’s rural economic development limited liability company and the creator of OysterFest, is an important backer of the cause.
“We all have the same challenges and opportunities,” said soil and water district manager James Marcus. “Working together, we’ll save wasted time and energy.”
“Frankly, we’re not the first ones to do this,” Ray LaRonde, a long-time mariculture researcher with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, said in Kake. “Your ancestors did it thousands of years ago.”
Forty-nine farms already culture oysters in the state, including 26 in Southeast Alaska and 22 in Southcentral. Most geoduck and littleneck clam cultures are in Southeast.
Most permitted farms in Alaska produce Pacific oysters, mussels, littleneck clams and geoduck clams. Sea urchins, kelps, sea cucumbers, razor clams and scallops are also permitted by the state, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
For oysters, the process works like this: farmers buy thousands of young, tiny oysters called “spat.” (Kake’s farm got its seed from Haa Aaní.)
The spat grow in stacked trays submerged in the ocean. When they’re ready, the farmers scrape the oysters off the trays and tumble them in a mechanized, rotating metal cylinder that breaks off the edges of the shells, allowing the oysters to grow deeper — more oyster, less shell.
(Another technique, which more and more farms are using, is to grow the young oysters in a tidal flat, allowing the action of the waves to do the initial tumbling.)
The tumbled oysters go back into the ocean to grow until harvest.
Farmers grow oysters in stacked rafts, inspecting the oysters and cleaning the rafts every so often until they’re ready for sale. A farm running at full tilt is usually growing a few million oysters.
The farm outside Kake is a project of the Organized Village of Kake and funded through a federal grant. After their apprenticeship, the farmers could get loans to start their own farms.
After checking young oysters at the workshop, Rodger Painter, a long-time mariculturist and oyster farmer working with Kake and its apprentices, said growth from spat placed in September of last year is better than he expected. Some more than doubled their size in one growing season.
He also said there’s a lot more to oyster farming, however, than shell growth.
There are also more opportunities.
“Shellfish aquaculture is more than farming,” LaRonde said. “It’s sales, marketing, purchasing, nursery culture, transportation, gear sales, enhancement, tourism — a lot of things are associated with this aquaculture enterprise that expand opportunities.”
Reliable jobs in rural Southeast Alaska can be hard to come by.
Hoonah Indian Association’s Natural Resources Director, John Hillman, was working in the Southeast Alaska timber industry and had to move to the Lower 48 when it slowed.
“I was forced to move down South and work down there,” he said. “(Oyster farming) is part of the reason that brought me back.”
Oysters also brought at least one of Kake’s apprentices back to the town.
Allen Davis, originally from Kake, was living in Juneau and out of construction work (he’d also worked in mining and timber) when he heard about the opportunity to apprentice at the farm and move home. Last spring, he did. He also helped build the floats and the farm itself.
Apprentice Kevin Martin said the opportunity to work on a community farm in Kake “just sounded interesting.”
Martin worked at Kake’s salmon hatchery for 14 years, but that hatchery will soon close, a victim of regional economics.
Apprentice Hank Copsey said he thought the farm was “a good business opportunity.”
“I’ve been working with OVK (the Organized Village of Kake) for four years,” he said. “I wanted to get into (oyster farming). I got a chance this time and jumped in.”
Apprentice Jacob Shaquanie worked with Tom Henderson, who owns a private farm outside Kake, for two years.
Part of what the workshop aimed to accomplish was help with developing a local workforce.
“The whole purpose is rural economic development,” Marcus said.
In addition to the jobs on the farm, Hillman anticipates jobs in marketing, packing, and other aspects of the business. He also anticipates oyster bars in Hoonah.
“It’s just an excellent opportunity,” he said. “There were 150,000 tourists walking off the ships last year (in Hoonah). ... That’s a lot of people, and a lot of them like oysters.”
LaRonde is always looking for ways to make oyster farming more viable in the 49th state. Alaskan oyster farmers frequently test new techniques he uncovers through research.
One tip he picked up from an oyster farmer in Washington was to grow oysters for their first year on a tidal flat, not in the water. The natural movement of the water on land cuts labor costs, as the oysters don’t have to be tumbled.
“This essentially removes a year of labor,” he said. The technique, he said, is “spreading like wildfire.”
Through crossbreeding, LaRonde has also helped speed the time to harvest. In 1991, that was four years. Now, it’s between 1 ½ and 2 ½ years, depending on the oyster, he said.
LaRonde, like many of the workshop’s oyster farming advocates, believe the industry should do as much business as possible in Southeast Alaska.
“It just makes sense to keep all that money here,” he said.
Alaskan oysters are also marketable as higher quality than more southernly oysters, workshop attendees said. Because Alaska waters are too cold for oysters to reproduce, they retain some of the sugars they would otherwise use in spawning, making them a little sweeter. They can also be harvested year-round, and there’s no danger of them becoming an invasive species.
They’re also higher in unsaturated fatty acids like Omega 3s than oysters raised in warmer waters, LaRonde said.
According to federal law, Painter said, everyone who sells shellfish to consumers must know where that shellfish came from.
Oysters are generally sold at a price of between $5 and $15 per dozen, he said. Reputation and business relationships with buyers are paramount in the determination of that price.
Most Alaskans are familiar with a bumper sticker that says “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish.”
Farmed oysters are different. Because they’re filter feeders, they actually clean the water around them, and there’s none of the concentrated waste found at a salmon farm.
Oyster farming, however, isn’t all pearls. It can be labor-intensive.
“You have to work your gear all the time during the growing season,” Painter said. With around 3 million oysters in a farm, “If you’re handling them once a month, it ends up being a lot of work no matter how efficient you are.”
Oysters were first brought to Alaska in the 1900s. The industry failed in the 1960s and restarted in the 1970s, LaRonde said. Backers of the modern revival are hopeful that technological developments, advances in farming techniques, and teamwork will help make it more successful now.
The last step before sale is sending oysters to Anchorage to be tested for paralytic shellfish poisoning, or the algae that causes it. If any of the oysters at a farm test positive, all go back in the ocean until they filter themselves clean (something validated by additional tests). The longer a farm goes without a PSP problem, however, the less frequent tests become. Though Alaska’s issues with PSP are complicated, Painter said it tends to be a very localized problem.
Another challenge is ocean acidification. Acidification is caused when carbon dioxide from air pollution is absorbed by the ocean, creating carbolic acid. That chemical reaction makes the ocean more acidic, creating conditions that can eat away at the shells of crabs, lobster and shellfish. Acidification is a growing concern that will have major effects for anyone connected with the ocean or its bounty.
For the last three years, Painter said, he’s only been able to order half the oyster seed he’s wanted to, something he said will eventually be “a major hit” on revenue.
“It’s like being a fisherman and having your boat broken,” he said. “(Acidification) should be a major concern for everybody ... the impacts go far beyond oysters.”
It hasn’t yet directly impacted Southeast Alaska, he said.
“We haven’t seen the effects yet up here, but we know it’s going to hit us sooner or later,” he said. “If we (humans) stop everything bad that we’re doing ... it’s still going to be a problem. Where are we if the oceans die?”
Part of what will make the shellfish farming industry viable, LaRonde said, is teamwork. Collocating labor or data collection equipment helps to reduce costs, for example. An “intensively developed” local industry, rather than discrete farms in different locations, makes it viable.
“It doesn’t’ make sense ... to be by yourself, financially,” he said.
Another key effort is recruiting younger farmers.
“It’s a community-based project, and that’s what this whole thing is about,” he said. “The need to touch everybody from ‘k’ to gray.”
LaRonde calls Alaska oysters “a premium product in a pristine environment.”
“It’s just remarkable,” he said. “Shellfish farming has a lot of opportunity here.”
HIA received its farming permit at the end of April. Hillman said they plan to construct their floats and have 600,000 seeds in the water in Port Frederick Bay by the end of June. By the time the farm is running at full pace, they’ll have about 3 million oysters in the water.
Hillman is also hopeful that Hoonah could start a project of its own, benefiting from its proximity to Juneau and favorable shipping.
“This is a sustainable industry that provides a lot of benefits,” Marcus said.
Kake Tribal executive director Gary Williams said OVK’s farm is “an impressive accomplishment.”
“We’re hopeful that when folks see the success, they’ll want to jump on (board),” he said.
“We’re always looking for more partners,” Marcus said. “The whole idea is it’s a public-private partnership.”
“We’ve all got to be a team,” Hillman said. “Team players of Southeast.”
Marcus said the Southeast Soil and Water District’s workshop is the first in a series. Future workshops will focus more on techniques.