Shellfish farmers struggle to grow industry

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2004

Tom Manning paws through the sand at North Bridget Cove and happily pulls out five little geoduck clams, each no more than about 2 inches long.

They're babies still, nowhere near their eventual two- to three-pound eating size. But their survival through last winter was a triumph for Manning.

He is a pioneer in Alaska's tiny shellfish industry, experimenting with planting geoducks in the intertidal zone farther north than anyone else in the state has attempted.

"No one knew whether it would work or not," Manning said. "Almost everywhere we had over 50 percent survival."

He is one of about 60 people with permits to grow shellfish in Alaska. Some hope mariculture can replace jobs that are disappearing in logging and commercial salmon fishing.

Regulatory and legal hurdles and the remoteness of growing sites have made shellfish farming a tough venture here. But state officials say the industry may be close to emerging from some of its troubles.

"I believe this industry is right now ready to springboard to growth," said Jackie Timothy, statewide mariculture coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

At Naukati Bay, a former logging camp on Prince of Wales Island, the number of shellfish farms is doubling this year, said community association president Art King.

"We're trying to change our economy from timber dependent to something that will be long term and good for the community," King said. "It's an industry that's just, in my opinion, going to explode and take right off here."

But shellfish farming is still a very small industry in Alaska. It employed about 110 people in 2003 for an average of 48 days each, not including owners and operators of the farms, according to Fish and Game.

Sales of farmed shellfish - mostly Pacific oysters, littleneck clams and blue mussels - amounted to just $624,573 in 2003. That's up 19.4 percent from 2002, but still a miniscule number compared with commercial salmon fishing in Alaska, which brought fishermen $195 million in 2003.

Rodger Painter of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association said people have been trying to grow shellfish in Alaska at least since the 1930s. Interest died out around the 1950s, then revived again in the 1970s, but the permitting process was quite cumbersome.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that laws setting out a clear regulatory framework for growing shellfish passed. And even then, things didn't go smoothly.

A lawsuit claimed the state was issuing permits it shouldn't have. The courts changed the rules, then the Legislature passed new laws trying to fix the system. That was followed by regulation writing. In the meantime, years passed in the 1990s with no new permits.

Permits are being issued now, but a new problem has arisen for some farmers. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state lacked statutory authority to let farmers harvest any wild stocks of geoducks. That would pose a problem at harvest time for farmers trying to tell the difference between wild and farmed clams.

Legislation aimed at solving that problem is expected to pass when the Legislature meets in January, although some question whether the fix goes far enough.

Painter said the regulatory and legal hurdles faced by the industry here are not unique. Any time people anywhere try to start new development in the marine waters, concerns follow, he said.

"Those waters are used by a lot of different people, so it's always really hard to get established," Painter said.

And one difference between Alaska and Washington state - which has a much more developed shellfish farming industry - is that all the shoreline in Alaska is owned by the state.

So when would-be farmers try to lease public beaches and waters, they often face conflicts - from recreational clammers worried about losing access to favorite spots, locals worried about visual clutter, mariners who want to continue anchoring in bays and commercial shellfish divers who don't want farmers moving in on their wild harvest.

In 2002, in an effort to jump-start the industry and head off the opposition that often surfaces when farmers pick their own sites, the Legislature passed a law forcing state agencies to come up with 90 new sites suitable for mariculture and acceptable to the public.

The state found 158 sites, but when it put them out for bid in January, just 28 of the leases sold. The remainder are still available. That's not surprising, Painter said.

"We were always looking at this as being kind of a long-term program that would probably take a number of years for these sites to actually be leased and used," he said.

Besides regulatory and legal hurdles, people wanting to grow shellfish in Alaska face the same challenges as people trying to make a living doing anything else in rural Alaska.

Most farms are in remote areas where energy, labor and transportation costs are high. That means Alaska oysters wind up costing $5.50 to $6 a dozen wholesale in Seattle, compared to $3.50 to $4 for oysters from other sources, Painter said.

And the work is not for everyone. Probably 150 people have tried their hand at shellfish farming in Alaska since the mid-1980s and given up, said Timothy, the mariculture coordinator.

"It's really, really hard work," Timothy said. "I think a lot of people get into it as a lifestyle decision and then they decide, 'Wait a minute. This is just a little too wet and cold and remote for me."'

If Manning can make geoduck farming work in the intertidal zone in Juneau, he'll have an advantage. Other geoduck farmers plant their animals subtidally, which requires boats and divers and pushes up costs.

Manning is also less than 40 road miles from the airport in Juneau, so he could get his product to market more easily.

The next few years will tell whether shellfish farming in Alaska continues to plod along, providing a living for a handful of people, or whether it grows at a faster pace, Painter said.

He predicts that even remote areas will find ways to cut their costs as the industry grows. That is happening now near Cordova, where one farmer operates a nursery that provides seed, and another does the processing and marketing for the other farmers, Painter said.

As more people start working in Naukati, they may also be able to turn some corners in efficiency, he said. They will also benefit from a nursery the community association built.

"There's a lot of opportunities," Painter said. "I think as you get more farms, you're going to find more farms working together and be able to achieve some economies of scale."

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