Shellfish growers say new state rules for shellfish farms violate state law and impose costly burdens.
The state Department of Fish and Game recently issued regulations to govern permits for shellfish farms, the only kind of fish farming allowed in Alaska. State officials say the rules are a reasonable requirement for people who want to use public land for up to 10 years and who may affect other users and the environment.
The rules, effective June 17, extend the length of farm permits from five to 10 years to match the period of state tideland leases. But the rules - the first to flesh out in detail the Aquatic Farming Act of 1988 - also require detailed site studies and specify a lot of reasons to turn down a permit.
The state met twice this year with upset farmers to soften draft rules, but shellfish growers are still unhappy with the final rules. They say the rules require expensive preliminary studies and development plans by farm applicants, and they feel the rules make it easier for Fish and Game to deny a permit than the Aquatic Farming Act intended.
"The state has erected so many barriers between me and my ability to do what I have to do as a farmer, I'm not sure it's going to work out in the end," said Rodger Painter, who has clam farms near Prince of Wales Island and is vice president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association.
But Geron Bruce, state deputy director for commercial fisheries, said the requirements represent an investment up front in trying to understand a farm site's characteristics, its possible conflicts with other users and ways it could cause biological problems.
"That seems like a good investment that will pay off in a higher likelihood of successful farms down the road," Bruce said.
The farmers also complain that the rules largely limit them to indigenous species that have little or no track record in aquaculture, while requiring them to demonstrate the success of proposed culture practices.
That's fundamental to demonstrate that the activity is farming, and not just harvesting naturally occurring resources under the guise of farming, Bruce said.
The shellfish growers also are concerned the regulations don't allow them to own the previously existing wild stocks on their farms, except as a source of seed or brood stock or to cultivate, rather than sell off.
The question is the subject of an unresolved lawsuit in Ketchikan Superior Court by several Southeast applicants for geoduck clam farms.
"Anyone who's done any dirt farming can understand this," Painter said. "You have to have control of the piece of ground you're cultivating and the organisms there."
The state argues that the Alaska Constitution doesn't allow an exclusive right to common property resources except in limited-entry fisheries.
Painter said the growers association doesn't have the money to challenge the new rules in court. But it may ask legislators to clarify the intention of the Aquatic Farming Act, he said. A court ruling in favor of the farm applicants also would require the rules to be changed, he said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.