The issues surrounding the farming of shellfish in Alaska have been the subject of a number of recent articles and opinion pieces published in several Alaska newspapers. Contrary to the claims made in some of these articles, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has been, and will continue to be, supportive of responsible aquatic farming in Alaska.
The legislature passed the Aquatic Farm Act in 1988. Since that time, ADF&G has issued 176 aquatic farm permits, permit amendments, or permit renewals. The reported value of the product from these permitted farms continues to grow each year. As is the case with most resource-based industries, there have been successes and failures, and new challenges to face as the industry evolves.
While the Aquatic Farm Act provided basic guidance for developing aquatic farms using suspension techniques, such as hanging nets or rafts for growing oysters, the act did not address "on-bottom" farming of species such as littleneck clams and geoducks. In recognition of the unique challenges involved with on-bottom farming, and the need to gather additional information to properly administer the suspended or floating farm industry, ADF&G has recently released new draft aquatic farming regulations for public review. The comment period on these proposed regulations is open until Feb. 12.
A critical issue addressed in these draft regulations is how naturally occurring clams and other species are to be managed in relation to aquatic farming. A number of persons applied for farm sites to gain exclusive use of these valuable common property resources in order to subsidize their farming activities. The Alaska Constitution and a number of provisions of Alaska law do not allow the exclusive use of our resources. The applicants were offered and refused permits with conditions that reflected Alaska's constitutional and statutory mandates. Several of the applicants, whose proposed farm sites are estimated to contain over $5 million of naturally occurring geoducks, have filed suit against the state for failure to grant them exclusive rights to harvest this public resource.
We believe that an equitable balance should be reached between all Alaskans wishing to use existing wild stocks. Farming, the developing commercial dive fisheries, subsistence and personal use must all be considered in developing plans and regulations for responsible resource use. The department believes that aquatic farming means either growing new product on a farm site or enhancing productivity beyond naturally occurring levels on a farm site. It does not mean providing permits to exclusively harvest valuable common property resources under the guise of a farm.
I urge all those with an interest in these issues to look beyond the rhetoric we have seen of late, and assist the department in continuing to develop the aquatic farming industry in a manner consistent with the law and good public policy.
Frank Rue is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.