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The state will change some of its proposed regulations for shellfish farming in response to an industry outcry that the rules made it too hard to get permits.
Farmers hope that under milder rules the current "dismal" number of farms, which produce only about $500,000 a year of product, will grow, said Bob Hartley, former president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association.
British Columbia, faced with a declining salmon industry and coastal unemployment, developed a shellfish farm industry over the past decade that produces $30 million of product a year.
"We agreed with the general concept that more flexibility is better to try to accommodate different kinds of farms in different areas that have different issues associated with them," said Doug Mecum, director of commercial fisheries in the Department of Fish and Game.
The state also will extend this year's deadline for applying for site leases and farming permits to June 30, so applicants can meet the requirements of the new rules. The agency expects to offer revised rules for comment late this month.
Farmers have criticized the proposed rules in several public hearings in recent months. The agency met last week with farmers, a shellfish hatchery manager, commercial fishermen, a university biologist and a conservationist.
"I thought it was a really good first step," Hartley said. "If the regs are re-written to make it easier and more understandable for a farmer to get a farm started, it will be a big boost to the industry."
Thirty-eight shellfish 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.
In 1999, after a three-year moratorium on issuing more permits because of a lawsuit, 41 farmers applied for permits and 11 were granted. Six applicants in Southeast wanted to farm geoduck clams, which are commercially fished by divers, some of whom fear that the farms will take fishing grounds from them.
Current and would-be shellfish farmers had said the proposed rules - the first to really flesh out the state Aquatic Farm Act of 1988 - asked for expensive and nearly impossible studies to get or renew a permit.
"We're farmers. We're not scientists," said Rodger Painter, vice president of the growers association. "These aren't research projects. We're trying to scratch out a living in rural Alaska."
Farmers said the rules contradicted the Aquatic Farm Act, which says the state will grant farm permits unless the farm would significantly alter other uses or significantly harm fisheries or the environment.
The proposed rules wouldn't let farmers have a site in an area that was used by fishermen. Even anchoring a boat in an area might have prohibited a farm, Painter said.
And under the rules the state would turn down permits if the farms would disrupt or have an adverse effect on wildlife, which farmers saw as much lesser standard than significant harm.
Fish and Game hasn't budged from one contentious issue - who owns the wild stocks on farm sites. Six geoduck farm applicants in Southeast are suing the state about that. They want to be able to sell the existing wild stocks in order to finance their farms. Some sites could have stocks worth millions of dollars.
"It's not that we're necessarily even opposed to that as a matter of principle or even biological concern. It's not what the law allows," Mecum of Fish and Game said.
The state says the law lets farmers use existing wild stocks only as brood or seed stock, and the state constitution doesn't allow exclusive use of a common resource except in limited-entry fisheries.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.