ADF&G in conflict over shellfish farming

My turn

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

Here we have an agency that is philosophically and institutionally opposed to aquatic farming, yet it is required by state law to promote the industry. ADF&G supports commercial fishing and views aquatic farming as a threat.

Alaska is about to lose its first and only shellfish hatchery and with it a promising resource industry, aquatic shellfish farming. Ironically, this is due to the lead state agency responsible for its health and welfare, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This will mean the loss of dozens of new jobs and million of dollars to our local economies. Since 1986 aquatic farming has been the fastest growing food-producing method in the world.

The problem is fairly simple. Here we have an agency that is philosophically and institutionally opposed to aquatic farming, yet it is required by state law to promote the industry. ADF&G supports commercial fishing and views aquatic farming as a threat. It's kind of like asking Greenpeace to put together a fair and balanced timber management plan for the Tongass National Forest.

As a longtime commercial fisherman I believe it is important to note that when the Alaska Legislature passed the Aquatic Farm Act in 1988, it specifically outlawed finfish farming (salmon farming, halibut, etc.). Therefore, when we talk about private "for profit" aquaculture in Alaska, we are speaking only about shellfish and aquatic plants, i.e. clams, oyster, seaweed and kelp.

The problem other potential shellfish farmers are having in Alaska comes down to a few essential issues. Foremost is ADF&G's inability to come to grips with the fact the legislature passed the Aquatic Farm Act in 1988. The next problem is the department's failure to adopt policies and standards that are consistently and equitably applied to all aquatic farm users and uses and consistent with state law. Finally, the department has chosen to discriminately apply ever-changing standards and policies to the utilization of so called "standing stocks" in favor of future undefined commercial uses.

Our farm will support a number of species for cultivation, one of which is geoduck clams. Because our site supports natural occurring clams, ADF&G believes it can only be utilized by one exclusive user group. This ultra-exclusive group is a handful of divers who for the past 15 years have participated in an experimental capture fishery in Southeast Alaska.

Even though ADF&G uses less than 1 percent of the available coastline in Southeast for the fishery and our site is 50 miles from any current clam fishery, ADF&G believes that this one user group should have exclusive commercial access to this particular species for the entire region. We believe the Aquatic Farm Act and the Alaska Constitution provide for broader public use of our natural shellfish resources.

ADF&G has run an experimental geoduck fishery for the past 15 years as a classic derby style fishery, capture and kill as fast as you can in 24 hours. Because of ADF&G management, Alaska has the lowest ex-vessel price in the world for this product, 80 percent of the ex-vessel payroll goes out of state and stocks have been depleted. In contrast, aquatic farms would provide a year round supply of a much higher quality product, furnish full-time local employment to local residents and increase stocks through extensive enhancement, while utilizing a fraction of the resource.

In fairness to ADF&G, I believe it does a good job managing our wild salmon stocks and should be commended and looked to as a model. However, when it comes to our shellfish resources and providing for the development of the shellfish farming industry, the state has failed.

While other states and Canadian provinces hope to cash in on the millions of dollars that can be made in shellfish aquaculture, Alaskans - and particularly our management agencies - refuse to see the vision of economic development of our coastal communities

Frank Murkowski recently said, "If all Alaskans don't stop their attacks on resource industries, and stop them soon, there will likely be no industries left. And when that happens the only thing that will be sprouting are for sale signs in homes and higher tax bills for the few Alaskans left to cash the government checks."

In this case, the attacks are not coming from federal bureaucrats, which we all love to hate, but from our own state administration.

Scott D. Thomas, of Ketchikan, is the founder and managing member of Alaska Trademark Shellfish, LLC.

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