Shellfish farmers say proposed state regulations would kill the fledgling industry by making it hard to get permits or finance their business. State officials insist the rules are reasonable for farmers who are committing to five-year operating permits and 10-year site leases.
"These regulations are extremely antagonistic and appear designed to prevent the aquatic farm industry in Alaska," Rodger Painter of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association said Tuesday at a teleconferenced public hearing in Juneau.
Thirty-eight aquatic farms produced about $485,000 worth of product in 1999, according to preliminary state figures. Most of that value came from oysters, with some coming from littleneck clams and mussels. The state doesn't allow finfish farms.
Painter said the rules would impose harsher standards for getting permits than under the state Aquatic Farm Act, which encourages shellfish farms.
The proposed rules would require farm applicants to make detailed preparatory studies of their site, which farmers said would be expensive or impossible. Under the rules, farmers who cultivate wild stock would be allowed to harvest only the amount the stock increased over its natural condition. The rules also limit farmers' uses of wild stocks already on their sites.
Farmers should be allowed to sell existing wild stocks to offset the costs of developing farms, said Scott Thomas, managing member of Alaska Trademark Shellfish LLC, a proposed farm near Prince of Wales Island.
Like other farmers, he said the rules would allow the state Department of Fish and Game to close a farm for many poorly defined reasons.
"If you're going to draw up a business plan with those regs, no one in their right mind would bankroll you for anything because the regs are so broad they could shut you down at any time," he said in an interview.
"The kinds of information the department is requiring," countered Fish and Game mariculture coordinator Ken Imamura in an interview, "are probably the same kinds of data a really serious applicant would want to know about."
The state wouldn't act against a permit holder unless there was gross noncompliance, Imamura said.
The proposed regulations are the first detailed rules to flesh out the Aquatic Farm Act of 1988. A legislative audit, released this month, criticized Fish and Game for not having clear rules for approving farms, especially those that grow littleneck clams and geoducks, which are buried in tidelands.
Sometimes those tidelands contain large wild stocks worth millions of dollars in commercial markets. The issue doesn't arise with oyster and mussel farmers, who grow their stock in nets in the water.
A controversy arose when Fish and Game turned down six geoduck applicants in 1999 because they wouldn't agree to allow commercial and other users access to wild stocks on their sites.
Fish and Game wanted to be sure clam farmers aren't leasing tidelands in order to sell off existing wild stocks. Officials say that would violate the Aquatic Farm Act and the state Constitution, which reserves naturally occurring wildlife for common use, except for limited-entry fisheries.
Under the proposed rules, farmers wouldn't own wild stocks on their site without a special permit, which would allow them to use them only as brood or seed stock, or to cultivate them and harvest only the increased amount.
Brood stock are captive adults that produce young to be grown on a farm. Seed stock are juveniles captured in the wild to be grown on a farm.
The Aquatic Farm Act "doesn't say you can have access to the standing stock of invertebrates or clams just to harvest and sell," said Steve McGee, who oversees mariculture for the state.
Those geoduck farm applicants have appealed Fish and Game's permit conditions in Ketchikan Superior Court.
For years Fish and Game had told permit applicants the existing wild stock would pass to farmers when they leased a site, said Bruce Weyhrauch, a Juneau attorney who represents Thomas and three other appellants.
Some divers who harvest geoducks commercially, mostly near Ketchikan and Craig, support the proposed rules. Aquatic farms will limit their small fishery's expansion if farmers have exclusive use of existing wild stocks on their sites, said Julie Decker, executive director of Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.
In recent years, about 100 divers have harvested about 200,000 pounds of geoducks a year, worth $1 to $4 a pound, Decker said. The quota jumped to 400,000 pounds this year because the state surveyed more dive sites, a necessary step before allowing a harvest.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.