Battle brews over clams

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

Soldotna's Dolly Farnsworth said she does not mind floating oyster farms, but she objects to a proposal for a clam farm on the beach near her homestead on Kachemak Bay.

"That farm would prevent a lot of people from coming to that beach to dig clams," she said.

Alaska shellfish farmers, who long have grown mussels and oysters in baskets suspended from buoys, are increasingly interested in growing clams on the bottom.

Lance Trasky, regional supervisor for the state Division of Habitat Restoration and Development in Anchorage, said he has had inquiries about establishing clam farms on popular beaches at Clam Gulch and Kachemak Bay -- and heard plenty of objections.

"We had people say they were digging clams there and please don't privatize it," he said. "We've had a lot of people complain about giving away shellfish beds."

Fish and Game has been working for a year on a proposal to close Kachemak Bay to on-the-bottom shellfish farms. Public comment ended Dec. 13.

Now, Fish and Game is considering statewide regulations to clarify how mariculture laws passed for oyster farming should apply to farming clams. Shellfish farmers are worried.

"They're changing the rules after we're already in business to make it unduly restrictive," said Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative treasurer Don Fell, who grows oysters and mussels in Kachemak Bay.

The statewide rules would direct Fish and Game to deny applications for farms that would be exposed to adverse weather, use too much of an inlet, occupy sites within 330 feet of an eagle's nest or impinge on areas important to salmon, herring, waterfowl, shorebirds and sea otters. That is just a sampling of proposed rules Fell said leave too much room for interpretation -- opening doors for Fish and Game to drive shellfish growers out.

Waterfowl, shorebirds and otters use most of Kachemak Bay, he said, and who is to say what constitutes adverse weather?

"If an eagle puts up a nest less than 330 feet from your farm, you're out of business," Fell said. "It appears to many members of our group that the new rules would put them out of business."

However, Doug Mecum, director of the state Division of Com-mercial Fisheries, said he does not believe the proposed rules would hurt existing farms or keep farmers from growing shellfish in hanging baskets of trays. If growers fear otherwise, he said, they should comment to Fish and Game.

"We're certainly not trying to put somebody out of business," Mecum said. "The main issue in these regulations was how to deal with the transfer of ownership of a common-property resource to the exclusive use of a farmer."

The question is whether the state can permit aquatic farms on beaches that already support wild clams, he said. Once a farmer seeds a beach and lays nets to keep out starfish and birds, the public loses access. Hanging baskets of oysters were the focus when existing laws were written, he said, and they give little guidance on opening private farms in public clam beds. The Alaska Constitution reserves fish and wildlife for common use and forbids creation of exclusive fisheries.

Existing laws allow Fish and Game to issue permits for collecting wild shellfish to supply stock for existing aquatic farms and hatcheries.

Fish and Game believes that means collection of seed stock, but some people believe farmers can gain exclusive access to wild clam beds, Mecum said.

"There was one person in particular who wanted to gain exclusive access to an area that held several million dollars worth of geoduck clams," he said. "He wanted to harvest the (wild) stock and use that to pay for brood stock and stocking."

Other farm applicants proposed harvesting wild clams to boost production in existing beds.

"They wanted to harvest what's there, then come back a few years later and harvest again. Some had no intention of stocking," Mecum said. "Farming is not rotational harvest of wild stock. Some people want to engage in what looks more like commercial fishing, not farming."

When Fish and Game turns down applications, people ask why, he said.

"There has been confusion at times what the appropriate interpretation of the statutes is," he said. "There are a lot of arguments about what you do with standing stocks."

Mecum said Fish and Game proposed regulations to clarify the statutes at the request of the Alaskan Shellfish Growers Association.

Growers association vice president Rodger Painter said the state received 44 applications for shellfish farms in 1999. About half were for suspended farms and half for farms on the bottom.

"Fish and Game recommended that every one of the on-the-bottom farm applications be denied," Painter said. "In the end, two or three clam-farming applications were approved. About half of the suspended farm applications were denied."

In denying applications, he said, Fish and Game cited existing uses such as subsistence and bear viewing, but never explained how the proposed farms would interfere. It denied applications for geoduck clam farms in areas with no wild geoducks, he said.

"If you go through all of this, it shows the department has a bias against aquatic farming, and they're looking for any reason to deny applications," Painter said.

That is the problem with the proposed regulations, he said.

"If you get 24 pages of regulations, there are all kinds of things they can hang a hat on to say no," he said.

Mecum said he is not surprised by the controversy over proposals to regulate a previously unregulated segment of the industry. If growers have concerns, he said, they should forward those to Fish and Game. That is what the public comment period is for.

Comments should be mailed to Kenneth Imamura, mariculture coordinator, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Commercial Fisheries, Capital Office Park, 1255 W. 8th St., P.O. Box 25526, Juneau, AK 99802-5526; e-mailed to ken_imamura@fishgame.; or faxed to Imamura at (907) 465-4168. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Feb. 12. Fish and Game also plans a public hearing Jan. 30 in Juneau.

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