The Oceans Alaska Marine Science Center has barely opened its doors and tiny oysters are already growing at the new floating facility at George Inlet in Ketchikan. The 28-acre site was granted to the nonprofit by the state and the Ketchikan borough in 2006.
The center houses the first home-grown source of oyster "seed" for Alaska growers and aims to be the go-to place for mariculture research and training. Some 29 shellfish farms are producing in Southcentral and Southeastern Alaska so far. The main crop is oysters, with sales valued at about half a million dollars last year. (No shellfish farm applicants have ever come from westward regions of Alaska, said Cynthia Pring-Ham, state mariculture coordinator.)
"I could sell all the oysters I could possibly produce and could double sales tomorrow with just a couple of phone calls, especially in New York. There is a lack of production throughout the country," said Tom Henderson, Oceans Alaska mariculture director and a long-time oyster farmer near Kake.
Henderson said the center will begin working on geoduck mariculture projects and "then get into other things, among them seaweeds."
Seaweed is the second largest aquaculture industry in the world, second only to freshwater fish. Kelp is a multibillion-dollar industry in Japan and Henderson wants to work with the traditional, local black seaweed, which he said tastes better than the Japanese nori, popular in sushi.
Economists believe expanding mariculture just in Southeast Alaska could easily increase the industry's revenues from the current $7 million to more than $100 million a year.
Australia produces 80 million oysters a year, worth $40 million. New Zealand's government-funded mussel industry went from $15 million to more than $100 million in 20 years. And scallop farming at Prince Rupert and Prince Edward Island in Canada is a $60 million industry. For more, check oceansalaska.org.
Catching small crabs
Alaska's most far-flung fishing fleet plans to catch lots of small crab when the golden king season gets under way next month. Golden kings are caught in deep water along the 1,200 miles of the Aleutian Chain. Goldens are Alaska's most stable king crab stock, with a harvest this season of 6.2 million pounds. The remoteness of their home turf, however, prevents managers from surveying the stocks as often as they'd like.
To safeguard the fishery, the fleet of five to six boats voluntarily uses gear with larger mesh than required by law to make sure all small crabs can escape. And therein lies the problem.
"By designing their gear to avoid juvenile crab during the commercial fishery, the information you get indicates there are no small crabs down there," said Denby Lloyd, science advisor for the Aleutian King Crab Science Foundation, a harvester group. "To assess whether the population is in a productive cycle or not, you have to use a different method ..."
To that end, the fleet will use 20 test pots made with small mesh to capture juveniles. Department of Fish and Game scientists will collect the data and then return the crabs to the sea.
"The fleet has a very stable fishery and they want to make sure it remains that way, as well as grow the harvest opportunity," Lloyd said in an interview. "By using the commercial fleet directly, it minimizes costs for the state and federal government and everyone benefits from the data."
Tracking golden king crab is tricky, no matter how it's done. The crabs are down 1,800 feet or more and live amid steep underwater mountains, where there is a risk of crab pots tumbling down cliffs and getting lost.
A $25,000 grant from the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation paid for the test pots. The Aleutian Islands golden king crab fishery begins Aug. 15 and can run through February.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright.