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Peninsula shellfish operations dig into competitive business

Coming out of their shell

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2001

Don't let the quiet inside the Qutekcak Shellfish Hatchery fool you. Most of the activity in the 7,500-square-foot building on the shore of Resurrection Bay takes place beneath the surface and behind the scenes.

One large tank appears filled with nothing but clear water. However, it is home to shellfish too tiny for the eye to see.

Another tank of water seems to have sand in it. But seen through a microscope, the "sand" is actually perfectly shaped baby shellfish, identical -- except in size -- to the adults in a separate tank nearby.

Some of the tanks are covered, offering shade to their light-sensitive inhabitants.

Overhead, a series of pipes delivers water from Resurrection Bay. Before being added to the tanks that hold the hatchery's scallops, little neck clams, geoducks, oysters and cockles at varying stages of development, the water goes through a numerous filters and an ultraviolet chamber.

Another series of pipes delivers species-specific food. In a room to one side is where preparation of the food begins, the colorful liquids filling shelves of bottles, jugs and large bags.

Ron Long, the Qutekcak Shellfish Hatchery director, moves from tank to tank, checking the condition of the animals and adjusting water levels.

"In 1995, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District did a survey to determine the potential feasibility of expanding the shellfish farming industry in Alaska and the obstacles to be overcome," Long said. "The prime thing they found was the lack of a consistent and quality supply of seed. The second thing was lack of diversity. All the farmers' eggs were in one basket and they were competing with farmers from other states."

It was clear from the report -- which won national recognition for the data gathered and the way it was presented -- that Alaska oyster farmers needed to expand into other species.

However, by state law, oysters are the only shellfish seed that can be imported. Alaska farmers were getting it from Washington state.

"Washington hatcheries are also farms," Long said. "And they hatch primarily for their own use. That dovetails in with lack of consistency and quality since what they made available were the leftovers."

The answer was an in-state hatchery.

The Alaska Legislature appropriated $3.2 million from the Exxon Valdez oil settlement for construction of the facility and Seward was selected as the location because of Resurrection Bay's clear water. Building began in 1996.

"It was clear at the time that there was to be no continued funding," Long said. "An operator had to be selected to do the operations and maintenance."

Owned by the Alaska Depart-ment of Fish and Game, the hatchery was leased to the city of Seward. Seward, in turn, assigned maintenance to the Qutekcak Native Tribe, who had success spawning little neck clams at a pilot hatchery nearby.

"They are the only ones that had done that in Alaska," Long said of Qutekcak's success with the clams. "They still remain the only place that has spawned little neck clams. Washington hatcheries attempted to, but had no success. They backed off after Qutekcak's success."

When the hatchery opened in 1998, it focused on oysters and the clams. Since then, geoducks and scallops have been added. This year, the hatchery became the first place to successfully reproduce cockles in captivity.

"There are 52 shellfish farms in Alaska; 42 are active," said Long of farms spreading from Metlakatla in Southeast Alaska to Kachemak Bay. "We're supplying seed to over half of them."

Down on the farm

Ron and Marie Bader have been oyster farmers in the Kachemak Bay area for eight years. Before that, they commercial fished in Bristol Bay and both of them taught school.

"We have a small farm, but it really produces," said Marie, reporting that they harvest at least 50,000 oysters annually. "We're just amazed every year."

Although they have leased an acre from the state on which to develop their farm, what can be seen on top of the water is only about a third of an acre, Marie said.

"We're from the Midwest, and we just have a propensity to want to do something with land or water to optimize its productivity," she said. "When you see a flat stretch of ground, you think of capabilities. Everything here is very fertile.

"In 1991, when the state opened up Kachemak Bay for mariculture, we just felt that we'd see what we could do. We don't make a lot of money on it, but for the acreage that's here, it's very productive."

The Baders belong to the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative, which represents the 13 farms in Kachemak Bay. The co-op has hired Snug Harbor Seafoods of Kenai to do its marketing.

"We can easily sell 400 to 500 dozen oysters a week in Anchorage and they want more," Marie said. "There's never been a time when we've had an excess of oysters sitting around waiting to be bought."

Paul Dale and Brenda Stoops, owners of Snug Harbor Seafoods, also are oysters farmers.

"It's a very interesting business," Dale said. "In many areas of the world it has a high dollar value. There's no reason that our part of Alaska can't do the same.

Lucrative business

Some of Snug Harbor's customers are peninsula restaurants.

 

Ron Long holds adult brooder cockles, which can be male or female at the same time.

Photo by Yoni Pozner

"The cold water of Kachemak Bay makes oysters better than anywhere else," said Alice Paulson, owner of Mykel's in Soldotna. "We've been serving them for more than two years and sell enough to keep the people in the bay busy year round. In the summer, we go through anywhere from 12 to 20 dozen a week. They're very popular."

Captain Pattie's Fish House in Homer also serves Kachemak Bay oysters.

"We've been serving them since we opened two years ago," said John Michels, the restaurant owner. "The pristine water of Kachemak Bay is what makes them good."

Steven Fortier, the wholesale department manager for New Sagaya in Anchorage said Alaska oysters have gained popularity "quite a bit in the last few years."

Although he declined giving specific sales volumes, he said that in four years, the number has doubled.

"I'm really happy to see the Alaskan product doing so well," he said.

"The flavor is excellent because of good clean water. The meat is generally good. The liquid is real nice. Most of my oysters right now are from Kachemak Bay, but I also have pulled from Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska, too."

Even with the growing interest in Alaska shellfish, Long said, "The rest of the world is light years ahead of us."

There are hatcheries all over the globe, including Australia, China, Japan, Europe, Scandinavia and Canada.

In British Columbia, the shellfish industry grosses $50 million annually. In the state of Washington, it totaled $40 million. One island in Florida saw a 10-year growth from zero to $40 million after an initiative banned gillnets.

"We're operating at a trade deficit right now, importing 1.5 million pounds of clams a year to satisfy the demand in Anchorage because there aren't enough grown here to meet that demand," Long said.

He foresees a time when Alaska will produce enough shellfish to meet the needs in state and export to other locations, as well.

"The return on investment is significant," he said, putting dollars and cents to the food chain.

Oyster seed sells to farmers for approximately a penny, farmers sell oysters for approximately $1.25 each, and high end "white table cloth" restaurants in New York and San Francisco are selling them for $6 each.

"Those are the places starting to demand Alaska oysters," he said

Facing challenges

Despite the flourishing numbers, there are challenges to be overcome. The biggest one for shellfish farmers is working with the Department of Fish and Game to ensure regulations that will allow the industry to flourish.

"One thing I can't understand is why the state won't understand that it has a valuable resource in its water," said oyster farmer Marie Bader. "The potential for mariculture has only been scratched."

Long compared the situation to the proverbial chicken and the egg, using development of a genetic policy as an example.

"The Department of Fish and Game has divided the state into three zones -- Southcentral, Southeast and the Kodiak and Aleutian Islands -- for purposes of genetic protection, to assure that species from one area aren't transported or introduced into another area," he said.

However, it is still uncertain if there are genetic differences between the regions because these animals are "broadcast spawners," admitting gamete into the water current.

"It's probable that near the borders of the regions, gametes in one zone settle into another zone," he said. "And it's likely they do that beyond the borders. It's likely that they travel several hundred miles before they settle out."

Although the state is working on the genetic policy, Long said it hasn't developed it because there has been no reason to conduct studies without an industry.

"Only in the last few years has there been significant interest in raising these other species," he said. "It's new, and we're finding new stumbling blocks. Our job is to help the department as we go along."

The permitting process, which Long characterized as one of the most complicated in the United States, also has been a learning process for the state and farmers. Because tidelands are commonly owned in Alaska, the farming area must be leased from the Depart-ment of Natural Resources.

Initially, permits were for one year; however, farmers complained that it took at least three years to grow the animals. The permits were subsequently revised to three years and are now 10 years. The Department of Fish and Game issues a farming operation permit. The Department of Environmental Conservation does water quality control sampling and tests the final product before it goes to the consumer.

"Before farmers put any seed in the water, they become well versed in government," Long said.

For his part, he faces the challenge of educating the public.

"It's very easy for people to draw parallels between fin fish farming and shellfish farming," he said. "They're not at all the same."

The shellfish are not fed chemicals. They carry neither disease nor the possibility of disease.

"If you took a seed or adult animal grown on a farm and compared it under the microscope to a wild animal, not only could you not distinguish the difference, there is no difference," he said. "The only thing we do is give them a head start in life by removing predators and increasing survival."

Prior to brood stock being received from the wild, the Department of Fish and Game's pathology lab inspects the animals for disease. Before animals are shipped from the hatchery to the wild, they are checked to ensure no disease or toxins are being transported.

"They're clean going in and clean coming out," Long said.

The biggest challenge for the hatchery, however, is to keep afloat financially while research is being done and regulations are taking shape, until it can eventually focus on the business of making seed available to farmers. The original plan called for that to happen within five years. More recent projections place that at eight years.

Finding solutions

In March 2001, Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, introduced legislation supporting mariculture in Alaska. It required the offering of leases on 60 suspended shellfish sites, 20 clam sites and 10 geoduck sites, in addition to permits that have already been issued.

"SB 141 is a step in the right direction to maintain the existence and prosperity of a valuable Alaska industry without interfering with the right of all Alaskans to harvest a common property resource within the state," Torgerson wrote in his sponsor statement.

That legislation currently resides in the Senate Resources Committee.

 

Long holds baby cockles

Photo by Yoni Pozner

"A part of what everybody's job should be is to promote that hatchery," said Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna. Referring to himself and Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, Lancaster said, "We cosponsored legislation with Sen. Torgerson to help promote and identify how to put out new leases. This holds a lot of potential and opportunity for the state."

"Ron Long is a good one to get in there and work on it," Lancaster said. "He's a good resource."

Seward Mayor Edgar Blatchford also sees the development of the hatchery and shellfish farming a responsibility of the people of Alaska.

"Alaskans have taken a great deal from the sea for centuries," he said. "The least we can do is give something back. It's an obligation the people of Alaska have and an obligation the city of Seward has realized."



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