Oyster farmer wants spot off Kenai fjords park

Posted: Monday, May 13, 2002

SEWARD (AP) -- The wild, rugged Kenai fjords of a pristine national park are no place for a commercial oyster farm, National Park Service officials say. But a Seward entrepreneur wants to see a tiny corner of the remote sea coast sporting the trademark buoys and lantern nets.

A farm the size of five football fields has been proposed for Paradise Cove, a well-protected inlet of Aialik Bay, south of Seward.

But officials with Kenai Fjords National Park are appealing to the state to stop the development on the park's doorstep.

''There's the definite feeling this will negatively affect resident and commercial sightseeing in the park,'' said Anne Castellina, the park's superintendent.

The National Park Service limits development on the land. But the agency's authority stops at the water's edge.

There, Alaska's Department of Natural Resources takes over.

Environmental groups, park officials and some small boat owners say they're shocked that commercial development might occur in a wild place that's supposed to be unfettered by man-made structures.

But state officials and members of Alaska's burgeoning shellfish farming industry say there might be room for oyster growing. It is a quiet, clean, low-profile business, they say. Most visitors would never know it was there.

The proposal to use the cove originated from Robert Hardy, who lists a Seward bed-and-breakfast as his residence. Friends say he also spends a lot of time on his boat, the Aleut Star. He did not return calls from the Anchorage Daily News.

His application for a lease led to responses from the Park Service, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, three environmental organizations and one very angry sailor.

The Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Alaska Center for the Environment say shellfish farming should be conducted far away from park lands.

And Jerry George, who keeps a boat docked in Seward, says Paradise Cove is a critical refuge. The spot is well known among sailors and commercial fishermen as a safe place to anchor up when storms roil the Gulf of Alaska.

Sailors say one corner of the cove has a shallow, sandy bed -- perfect for setting anchor -- and is one of a few places in Aialik Bay where a small boat can be secured when the wind is blowing fiercely.

The oyster farm would block most of the boat parking area, George claims.

Beyond the safety issue, George said he couldn't fathom how any commercial enterprise could be considered near Kenai Fjords National Park.

''We don't need an industrial farm in a national park. We don't allow hunting in the park. We don't allow anything else,'' said George, a retired highway engineer. ''You'd think the state and Park Service would work hand in hand to preserve tourist assets. But they don't.''

Some people in the oyster farming industry say George may be overstating the proposed farm's impacts.

Since most farmers check their nets only once every two months, there wouldn't be a lot of noise or traffic to deal with, said Ron Long, director of Seward's Qutekcak Shellfish Hatchery.

Hardy's farm, named Alaska Shellfish and Marine, would hold 6,500 oyster trays suspended from 130 longlines within a 1,043-by-209-foot rectangular area. The lines would be suspended from 4-foot-diameter buoys.

Oyster trays would be about 10 feet underwater in rows about eight feet apart. Oyster farmers tend their trays by running a boat between the lines, hauling up the nets and turning the oysters as they grow.

It is a routine practiced year-round at about 50 farms statewide. Most are in other famously scenic locations: Prince William Sound, Kachemak Bay and in Southeast Alaska. A few oyster growers tend nets in Resurrection Bay near Seward.

Hardy's permit application also depends on the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates structures built in navigable waters. There is no firm timeline for when the Corps will make its decision.

The state should issue its final decision this week, said Guyla McGrady, manager of the state's aquatic farming program.

''Upland management intent is something we really look at. It's a big factor. But we also manage tidelands for multiple uses. Where we can mitigate to make the uses compatible, we try to do that,'' she said.

She does want to check claims that the farm would hinder the ability of small boats to anchor.

''At this point, I'm still collecting information and I haven't reached any conclusions,'' she said.

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