KETCHIKAN -- Just a few days old, the tiny oysters growing in tanks at OceansAlaska's new float in George Inlet represent a big milestone for the Ketchikan-based organization -- and huge potential for the mariculture industry in Alaska. Mariculture, also known as ocean farming, focuses on cultivating marine life in its natural habitat.
"When you start to think of the big picture, it's pretty amazing really," said Dave Shupert, an industry expert who's been working with OceansAlaska on the oyster project.
It's the first time in Alaska that oysters are being grown from the larval stage to the "seed" size ready for shipment to oyster growers.
The project also is generating information about the cost and technology involved in operating a mariculture hatchery and nursery facility in the region.
"Our goal is to take (the information) from this and let somebody else build a hatchery that will really produce oyster spat for all the growers in Alaska," said Tom Henderson, OceansAlaska mariculture director and interim general manager.
OceansAlaska then would focus on other types of marine research at its new marine science center, according to Henderson.
Perched just offshore at the OceansAlaska site since April, the two-story blue building atop a 120-foot-by-40-foot float is the nonprofit group's first facility to become operational since OceansAlaska incorporated in 1992.
The center exemplifies the OceansAlaska's evolution from its original focus on building an aquarium/educational facility to conducting research that's relevant to the budding shellfish mariculture industry in Southeast Alaska -- and developing related education and training opportunities.
The oysters now growing within an intricate system of tanks, pipes and pumps are OceansAlaska's first research project, one that could help shellfish mariculture in the region substantially.
"This place here, although it's an educational place, it might spur an industry in Southeast Alaska," Shupert said.
That's not all. The project's use of heat pumps could provide information about that technology's potential use in heating homes and businesses near ocean water sources.
"I'm hoping that once we have a season on it and see what the costs are for heating water, we can kind of extrapolate that to the costs of heating a house," Henderson said. "I think there is a lot of potential there."
OceansAlaska is using a process called "micro-cultch" to produce its oyster seed. The micro-cutlch process has been successful in Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, but OceansAlaska is believed to be the first entity to attempt it in Alaska.
"That's kind of exciting, getting them to set the first time," Morgan said. "I think we're getting close to a million that have set. We won't ultimately end up with a million (seed) out the door from this first set because there is some mortality, of course. But it's working."
The oyster larvae were spawned at a hatchery in Washington state and shipped to Ketchikan, arriving at an age of less than one week.
OceansAlaska anticipates it will take five to six weeks for the oyster seed to get large enough to leave the facility.
The OceansAlaska oyster seed will have a ready market, not least because of a "massive seed shortage" that's occurred in recent years, said Shupert.
"There's just not enough to go around," he said.
Henderson said most of the oyster growers in Alaska won't be able to obtain what they need from Washington state hatcheries this year.
Sealaska Corp, which has become involved in Southeast Alaska's mariculture industry in recent years, has guaranteed that it will buy at least half of the OceansAlaska seed production, according to Henderson.
"There are plenty of other growers looking for seed as well," Henderson said, adding that finding takers for the remaining seed "will not be a problem.
By SCOTT BOWLEN
Ketchikan Daily News