Twelve years into a shellfish farming venture in Southeast Alaska, Rodger Painter is at once optimistic about market growth and daunted by the obstacles facing shellfish aquaculture.
"I think people see shellfish farming as being something that fits Alaska's coastal economies better than finfish," said Painter, who raises littleneck and steamer clams and oysters on Prince of Wales Island.
"People see shellfish farming as being pretty ecologically (and) environmentally friendly. They see it as non-threatening to the current structure of the economies of coastal Alaska."
On the other hand, shellfish aquaculture enthusiasts face the same problems as other rural Alaska businesses, which include a lack of infrastructure, high costs and difficulty competing against similar businesses with lower overhead, according to Painter.
Painter owns and operates the Tenass Pass Shellfish Co., with a plant on Prince of Wales Island and offices in Juneau. He is also the spokesperson for the Alaskan Shellfish Growers Association, formed in the early 1980s to represent shellfish farmers and those interested in developing shellfish aquaculture in Alaska.
Painter and other shellfish farmers will tackle these problems and policy issues affecting their industry Dec. 3-4 in Anchorage at a shellfish aquaculture conference hosted by the University of Alaska, the state of Alaska and associated industry participants.
Conference organizers said their goals are threefold: giving practical advice to those interested in shellfish farming, encouraging discussion on economic development opportunities and considering policy on current issues.
"The farmers are making money, but it is a tough business," said Glenn Haight, a fisheries development specialist with the Alaska Department of Commerce. Painter estimated gross collective income from all Alaska shellfish farmers for 2004 would total about $800,000. That includes about a dozen shellfish farmers whose operations provide their sole income, mostly from oysters, Painter said.
There are probably about 80 to 100 permits that have been issued by the state, but only about half of them are active operations, Painter said. Oyster farming in Alaska dates back to the 1930s, he said.
Other major species produced right now are littleneck clams and a few mussels, and there have not been any sales yet for farmed geoduck clams, he said.
"The species we are involved in are not involved in commercial fisheries, by and large," he said. However, Painter sees potential for red king crab. "They are very adaptable, so they do well in captivity," he said.
Painter said the conference would explore the potential seeding and enhancement techniques for existing stocks of red king crab.
One of the big problems with raising red king crab to market size is they go through a cannibalistic stage and eat each other, so turning them loose in the wild to mix with and enhance wild stocks might be a better alternative, he said.
"You might liken it to the salmon hatchery program," Painter said.
Crab discussions are one of several ways the conference will attempt to bring the industry in Alaska up to speed.
"Alaska is lagging a little behind the rest of the nation on shellfish aquaculture acceptance," said Ray RaLonde, an aquaculture specialist with the University of Alaska Sea Grant Program. "Nationwide, shellfish aquaculture is a multimillion dollar business."
The state of Alaska passed the Aquatic Farm Act in 1988, supporting development of shellfish and seaweed culture. Two years later, a separate piece of legislation specifically banned finfish farming.
"There is somewhat of a misunderstanding about the environmental impact of shellfish aquaculture," RaLonde said. "People equate bivalve aquaculture with finfish aquaculture, and they are completely different.
"Finfish generally have a life history that is well defined and stock replenishment is somewhat predictable. Bivalves (shellfish with two shells) are different," he said.
From the time clams' eggs and sperm go into the water, through the subsequent larval development period, the eggs and larvae can drift hundreds and hundreds of miles before they settle out, RaLonde said. This can make the wild harvest of shellfish unpredictable at best.
"Settling of the larvae is very random. What we found is you may have two good years of settling the beach and three very bad years. With aquatic farming, you plant your own seed and guarantee recruitment," RaLonde said. "If you look worldwide there are not sustainable wild harvests of bivalves. Internationally, 92 percent of oysters purchased are farmed."
Promoters of shellfish farming see its potential for providing more local hire and allowing more money to stay in coastal communities. "It is so locally driven and so locally supported that it has potential beyond other enterprises where the money and employment occurs outside (the community)," RaLonde said.
"It has much greater potential to stimulate the local economy, and it is year-round."
Changes in how shellfish farming is approached are helping the industry gain a stronger foothold in the state.
"We are very interested in trying to stimulate cooperative ventures, where two or more farmers operate as individual farmers, but cooperate in sharing labor, large equipment purchases, supervision of the site and joint marketing," RaLonde said.
"Even with our current farming sites, we are still in the developmental stage of in-state shellfish farming."
"We have a tidelands leasing program started in 1998, which now allows for 10-year leases," he said. Prior to that, shellfish farmers could only get a three-year operating permit.
"You can't go to the bank with a three-year operating permit, but you can with a 10-year lease," he said.
More information on the shellfish aquaculture conference can be found on the Web at www.commerce.state.ak.us/oed/seafood/conference.htm.
Margie Bauman is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
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