Peninsula shellfish operators compete for business

Posted: Monday, August 27, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- 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.

The Seward hatchery is home to scallops, little neck clams, geoducks, oysters and cockles at varying stages of development. They are the results of an intricate network of tanks and pipes, some pipes delivering filtered water from Resurrection Bay, others serving up species-specific food.

When the state-owned 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.

Before wild brood stock arrives at the hatchery, the Fish and Game Department's pathology lab inspects the animals for disease. Before animals are shipped from the hatchery to the wild, they are checked again.

''They're clean going in and clean coming out,'' said hatchery director Ron Long.

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

It's a far cry from 1995, when the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District conducted a survey to determine the potential feasibility of expanding the shellfish farming industry in Alaska and the obstacles to be overcome.

''The prime thing they found was the lack of a consistent and quality supply of seed,'' Long said. ''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 that Alaska oyster farmers needed to expand to other species. But under 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 spill settlement to build the facility. 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 Department of Fish and Game, the hatchery was leased to the city of Seward. Seward, in turn, assigned maintenance to the Qutekcak Native Tribe, which had 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.''

There is a growing interest in Alaska shellfish, but, Long said, ''the rest of the world is light years ahead of us.''

Hatcheries have been developed in other parts of the nation as well as 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.

The biggest challenge for the Seward hatchery is to keep afloat financially while research such as the cockle reproduction project is being done and state regulations are taking shape. The goal is to eventually focus on the business of making seed more readily available to farmers. The original plan called for that to happen within five years. More recent projections place that at eight years.

Meanwhile, the hatchery is funded by government and private grants, as well as seed sales.

''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.

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.

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