Shellfish farmers are happier with the state's latest draft of rules for getting permits.
"Basically, we're optimistic that we're going to end up with regulations that are livable," said Rodger Painter, vice president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association.
The rules as first written would have made it expensive and hard to get permits, said farmers and farm applicants. The proposed rules contradicted the state law that authorized and encouraged shellfish farms, they said.
The industry is still a fledgling. Thirty-eight shellfish farms produced about $485,000 worth of product in 1999, according to preliminary state numbers. Most of that value came from oysters, with some from Littleneck clams and mussels.
Shellfish farmers, commercial fishermen, a shellfish hatchery official, a farm applicant and a university shellfish expert met with officials from the state Department of Fish and Game in Juneau on Thursday to review the latest draft regulations.
"I think we have made some tremendous progress on these regulations," said Doug Mecum, director of commercial fisheries at Fish and Game.
The draft sets a higher threshold for denying a permit and clarifies that some requirements may not apply in all cases. Farmers were assuming worst-case scenarios, Mecum said.
But Painter countered that people seeking farm permits have been turned down because of Fish and Game's interpretations of rules.
The latest draft, for example, still says the agency will revoke a permit if the applicant doesn't comply with permit conditions. Painter wants that softened to say the agency may revoke a permit, and to give a farmer notice and a chance to comply.
"I would hate to lose my permit because I turned in my annual report late," Painter said.
But the state hasn't softened its position on the contentious issue of who owns wild shellfish on a farm site. The state contends the wild stocks are common property. The state constitution and the state's shellfish farming law don't allow farmers to own those stocks except to gather brood or seed stock or to cultivate them. Farmers want to be able to sell wild stocks to clear the sites and finance their farms.
Bob Hartley, former president of the shellfish growers association, compared the situation to a cattle farmer who wouldn't be allowed to remove elk or buffalo from his farm.
Six geoduck farm applicants from Southeast are suing the state in Superior Court over the issue. Some farms' wild geoduck stocks could be worth millions of dollars. Geoducks are a type of large clam.
Steve LaCroix, an applicant for a geoduck permit, said he planned to invest $500,000 a year for five years.
"The one piece that we're missing in order to take that kind of risk is a cooperative regulatory environment," he said at Thursday's meeting. "I see nothing in these regs that would encourage me to take that risk."
The public can comment on the proposed rules through March 27.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.