Tom Henderson runs Pearl of Alaska, one of the largest oyster farms in Alaska. And he's just a one-man operation.
Henderson supplies the only Alaska oysters regularly available in Juneau grocery stores and restaurants. Those outlets number just two: Super Bear Supermarket in the Mendenhall Valley and the Baranof Hotel restaurant downtown.
That hints at the size of the Alaska oyster industry. Last year, 26 organizations sold about $450,000 in oysters. People have been trying to grow these persnickety bivalves in Alaska for a century. But the industry is just now at the point where it might take off.
Growing oysters has a lot of the challenges of farming on land. It's hard labor on a seasonal schedule. It's subject to the mercy of the weather. And it gives small margins with a long wait for any return on a heavy initial investment.
But for those who want to grow something - such as Henderson, who grew up on a farm in Haines - it's just the right niche.
"The whole Southeast region is in such economic flux. Big-time tourism is not for everybody. I reckon that aquaculture and oysters are one of the answers," Henderson said.
A taste of the sea
Henderson once had an oyster-farming neighbor a few miles away who convinced him to try a few. He could have counted the number he'd eaten on two hands when he decided to farm them.
"It takes a little bit to get used to the idea of eating them," said Henderson, remembering his first oyster. "You just hold your breath and suck it down, and it's just kind of salty."
By this time he has become a connoisseur, however.
An oyster's delicate flavor bears the strong mark of its specific upbringing. The bivalve from one beach may be distinguished from the one next to it by looks and flavor.
At the Super Bear meat counter, your correspondent slurped a few Kake oysters and a few of the Port Washington competition. Both were fresh, juicy and salty, as oysters should be. Those from Kake looked different - they were clean and white, compared to the algae-crusted Washington ones. They had fewer bugs, the burrowing ghost shrimp that plague oyster farmers (though they don't hurt people). They were flatter.
A pop of the hinges. The Southeast oyster emerged, skinnier than its plump Washington comrade. It tasted stronger and more of minerals. Your correspondent had trouble choosing a favorite.
Those who buy Henderson's oysters swear by them.
Daniel Carson, food and beverage manager of the Baranof, serves Pearl of Alaska oysters on the half shell and baked Rockefeller (with spinach and Pernod) or Casino (bacon and green onion).
"They're fresher," he said. "They're just being produced right here, and there's no lag time."
Kenny Kaplor, meat manager at Super Bear, said customers tend to prefer the Kake oysters to the Port Washington ones. So does he, he said as he tipped one back.
"They're sweeter, I think, a much better flavor."
Henderson, up to his knees in oysters most days, said, "I don't eat too many of them."
How many is not too many?
"Maybe a half-dozen of them a day. If it's close to dinner and I'm hungry, more."
People have been trying to grow oysters in Alaska since the early 20th century, according to Ray RaLonde, an aquaculture consultant with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.
"Not knowing much about oyster biology or anything, it didn't really work," he said.
Many of those early winters were extra cold, and the oysters on the beach often froze. Permitting was a challenge from territorial days, too. At the height in the 1940s, the industry got up to all of 550 gallons of shucked meat. It was up and down, though; some years there were no oysters.
The industry didn't really get going until the late 1970s. A cadre of men in southern Southeast Alaska set up some rectangular log frames in the water, another not-so-reliable method.
By 1989, just one farmer made a living on oysters: Don Nicholson of Canoe Lagoon off Prince of Wales Island. He's still farming today.
In the 1980s, there also was a big debate about whether to allow fish farms at all.
Oysters were grandfathered in under the 1990 Aquatic Farming Act. It helped that they couldn't reproduce in cold Alaska waters, so the potential for nonnative species invasion was nil.
That oysters can't spawn here is both gift and curse, though, for their farmers. In the summer, warm waters down south trigger native oysters there to go "spawny." They're putting all their energy resources into gametes, not fattening themselves up. They are bitter and soft, with a white, oozy milk inside.
That doesn't happen to oysters in Alaska, where the water is too cold. They stay delicious in the summer, and may even take on a buttery flavor.
But no reproduction means Henderson must buy all his oysters as spats, or 2 to 3 millimeter juveniles. He gets some from the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, and some from Hawaii.
The Hawaii ones, as far as they travel, are cheaper, Henderson said.
"Essentially, we lose money on oysters. We grow them as a service to the industry," said Chuck Dimarzio, hatchery technician.
That's because it costs so much to heat the water to the right temperatures for the algae oysters to eat, according to Dimarzio.
The Seward hatchery also has not been in the oyster-seed business as long as the old hands in Hawaii, and oyster farmers report its seed has been less reliable so far.
Oyster farming is not for the weak.
Henderson starts the spats in a nursery system. As they grow, he separates them by size, so they grow evenly. Eventually he splits them into multitiered "lantern" nets by size. The nets must be shaken up and the oysters cleaned off, or they'll "become one with the net," as Henderson says. They grow bigger, and he puts them out on the beach to grow. Later he'll harvest them during low tides, squatting and bending.
"It's incredibly hard on your back," he says.
On the odd weeks, he doesn't have low enough tides. So every other week, he collects about 1,000 dozen oysters from the beach. He bleaches them in the sun, scrapes off the barnacles, sorts them by size, bags them. Eventually they'll be packed, each one lip-side down so it doesn't leak its oyster elixir.
The whole business averages about 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Henderson has no one to cover for him. His wife works for the state ferry system.
If he gets sick, he bears through it - except for packing, which health code says you can't do sick. If Henderson can't work, there are no oysters that week.
Most oyster farms are part-time operations, said Cynthia Pring-Ham of the Department of Fish and Game's mariculture program.
Henderson keeps thinking one of these days he'll have enough oysters to be able to hire a couple of people to help.
"I'm not getting any younger," said Henderson, who is 51. "It's pretty tough to keep on doing it. One of these days I'll get ahead."
He just put in an order for more spat, he said, that will perhaps double his volume.
Growing the industry
On the state's oyster aquaculture Web site, a frequently asked question is, "Can I get rich from this?"
The answer boils down to this: No.
"A one-man operation probably won't get you to where you can pay yourself," Pring-Ham at Fish and Game said.
As RaLonde sees it, the industry has faced three big obstacles. One is the technology, which has drastically improved and is starting to become much more efficient.
Another problem for years was that permitting was truly disorganized. It has become much more streamlined in recent years, and may become more so if the state decides to create special pre-permitted zones for aquaculture.
The third challenge is the business model, RaLonde said.
"They're in the business because they like the work," he said. "Farming is an ethic to them. They get great pleasure out of producing products from the land or the sea ... But managing the finances is an entirely different ball game."
Oyster farming requires a lot of start-up capital - more than $200,000 in Henderson's case, for example, and he still hasn't paid himself back.
Oysters take 18 to 36 months to grow, and farmers don't generally get any return on their investment for about six years, according to RaLonde.
And the cost of doing business, as for every business in Alaska, is rising. Henderson noted that at $150 for the 14-mile round trip between Kake and his farm, he has begun to be careful about how often he travels. And with the closure of L.A.B. Flying Service Inc., formerly the main regular air service out of Kake, Henderson said his freight costs have risen.
"I lost money last year, and I'm hoping to break even this year or do a little better. If I can get the volume up."
RaLonde has been developing a "model oyster farm," software that will allow would-be and present oyster farmers to test different cost and price scenarios. It's just one part of RaLonde's job of helping people figure out what they're getting into before they start.
Like Henderson, RaLonde says oyster farmers need to drastically increase their production to make any money. One solution is for them to band together: That's the hope in Kachemak Bay, where oyster growers started a cooperative to sell their product together.
"It's had these monstrous obstacles to overcome to get going," RaLonde said of the industry. "But one of the problems Alaska farmers do not face is demand. They sell every oyster before it's even grown."
"There's a heck of a lot of demand for oysters," Henderson said.
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