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The high priest of Alaska oysters

Ben Yeager | Cordova Times
Jim Aguiar farms oysters in Simpson Bay, near Cordova, Alaska.
Ben Yeager / The Cordova Times
The final product, freshly cleaned oysters ready for sale....Oyster farming in Simpson Bay, near Cordova, Alaska.
Ben Yeager / The Cordova Times
Jim Aguiar plants a stack, sewing on a mesh bag to keep out the sea otters.
Ben Yeager / The Cordova Times
Jim Aguiar, with Mike McNiel's help, eases a stack into his bowpicker in Simpson Bay, near Cordova, Alaska.
Ben Yeager / The Cordova Times
A view of Eagle Shellfish Farm from the air.
Ben Yeager / The Cordova Times

CORDOVA -- Jim Aguiar doesn’t like angst. That isn’t a judgment of others, but rather a conceptual misunderstanding on his part. He just doesn’t get it. “If you like angst, move to New York City and meet Woody Allen,” he said.

It could be that his life has been dictated by hard work and perseverance, first as a 19-year old with $20 to his name, working the slime line at a cannery, then as commercial fisherman and boat owner and now as the owner and sole operator of the Eagle Shellfish oyster farm in Simpson Bay, Prince William Sound. The Alaska oyster industry faces myriad problems, among them high transportation costs, lack of infrastructure, lack of labor and inconsistently available product. Perhaps the biggest problem is acquiring “spat,” or baby oysters; there’s just no reliable, functioning way to grow them in state. Oyster farming is notoriously labor-intensive. Alaska-grown oysters are typically raised in nets or stacks of trays suspended in the water.

By the time a single oyster reaches a plate, it is probably at least 3 years old and has been tumbled, washed and sorted at least five times so that the meat-to-size ratio is maximized. That’s a lot of work, especially considering that a farm like Aguiar’s can have well over a million oysters at any one time. As hard as Aguiar works, and as understaffed as his operation is -- most of the time it’s just him -- all in a distressed and nascent industry, a little angst might be permissible. Regardless, Aguiar produces and innovates, supplying both oyster seed, advice and a model of vertical integration to oyster farms across the state, with a doggedness that might be the key to making the Alaska oyster industry viable.

When I arrived by plane to his houseboat, a brown-paneled square building atop a green metal hull with a small cluttered dock in a nook of remote Simpson Bay, between Cordova and Valdez, the first thing he did was tell me to get to work. My task was “sticking line” -- tying becket hitches and adding loops every three feet in a 900-foot line. It took me a while to comprehend the knots, and why I was tying them. But from Aguiar’s unimpressed look, I knew the task was important. That day he had help: Mike McNiel, 46, an ebullient, ponytailed friend who had joined for about a month, worked silently at the oyster seed sorting machine with the zeal of a volunteer. The generator chugged away. Putting me to work was more about progress than relief or delegation. Aguiar moved on instantly to another job: sorting oyster seed meticulously by size with a prospector’s tray.

It’s easy to be intimidated by Aguiar. He’s a large man, well over 6 feet and barrel-chested. He sports a graying, untidy beard that makes him look like Ulysses S. Grant, our 18th president, and wears a tattered red flannel beneath his Grundens. His blue eyes and perpetually furrowed brow exude candor. More than his size or expression, what may intimidate is his particularly misanthropic affect. The first thing he’ll say when asked how he’s doing is “I’m old and grumpy.” Later, he’ll admit that that’s just his “tag line,” and he says it to everyone. He has an ironic sense of humor, morbid even, but beneath it all brims a profound sense of purpose.

Teeming with projects

After his commercial cod boat sank, Aguiar decided to switch directions in the mid-1990s. Tired of getting seasick, he did not return to fishing. He’d always had a keen interest in aquaculture, and oysters had the least intrusive regulations and seemed to hold the eventual promise of profit.

I asked him why he likes oysters. “Because they taste good,” he said. “Are you asking me why I like growing oysters?” I nodded. “I’m not sure I do,” he responded.

Sensing the dismissive affect, I kept pressing. It doesn’t seem to be oysters in particular that have him captivated, but rather perseverance. He started in a direction and wants it to work. “I would like to create an industry,” he said. “This has the potential to be a big industry.” Finally, he clarified, “Are you asking if I’m passionate about what I do? Yes.”

That afternoon I put maybe 30 beckets in the line. Aguiar and McNiel sorted and sorted. By 4 p.m., we were finished; for them, it had already been a 12-hour day. He took me inside the houseboat to see the operation. Inside, it looked like an untidy storeroom in a warehouse: plywood paneling and numerous shelves with weeks of canned food, gloves, socks and detective fiction. “I read everything,” Aguiar said. “Even soup labels.” The whole place teemed with projects paused right in the middle, boxes of line and plastic containers, entire rooms in temporary disuse.

The houseboat has three decks. The first, in the basement, contains a “remote setting site,” where, when active, usually in the winter, he grows seed bought from large shellfish companies in the Lower 48: Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, and Coast Seafoods, a Washington-based company with a hatchery in Kona, Hawaii. They are among the few companies with enough resources to actually cultivate spat. The seed will typically arrive in small net bags of 300,000 or so pinhead-sized oysters that he will then grow to “5,000-screen size” (about the size of your small fingernail). In the spring, he will transfer them to his nursery, called an upweller, or flupsy (for FLoating UPwell SYstem). The upweller uses a large paddle wheel to draw seawater and its associated phytoplankton, the oyster’s food, in and around the seed. Once they reach roughly thumbnail size, they are ready to be planted. Spat, when he has it, is vitally important to the farmers to whom he sells it, because in recent years there has been a shortage of larger spat down south. Growing seed as Aguiar does, and the algae to feed it, requires significant water, heat and light, accruing immense cost, especially in Cordova.

To accomplish this, Aguiar has MacGyvered a setup of pumps, pipes, heat-recapture devices and monitoring equipment. He runs a large (25-kilowatt) generator the entire growing season. From that, he powers more than 200 fluorescent bulbs, which not only provide the light, but also significant heat. He captures the waste heat from his generator and uses it to heat a 200-plus-gallon water conditioning tank that circulates water, along with food, into modified two-liter Coke bottles, glued together, containing the seed. Once the oysters have depleted the food from the water, Aguiar recaptures much of the heat using both a heat exchanger and, if ever delivered intact, a heat pump. With all of the multicolored growing containers, the pumps, the heat and the noise, the operation looks like a Rube Goldberg version of a mad scientist’s lab.

Upstairs on the middle deck are his living quarters and another room for crew, a kitchen and processing room. Outside this level floats his flupsy, which also acts as a storage and work platform.

On top is a roof deck that will be a greenhouse -- when he gets around to finishing it. Aguiar designed and built the entire houseboat himself from 1998 to 2000; he even welded the hull.

“If there’s one person trying altruistically to make this industry happen, it’s him,” said John Kiser, an oyster farmer in Ketchikan who has worked extensively with Aguiar. “He’s not an academic, but what he tells you about the oyster business is pretty valid. He knows by experience. He does a heck of a lot of reading, and has a fantastic brain for this.”

‘Incredible amount of time and effort’

Despite Aguiar’s efforts, growing spat exclusively in Alaska remains a dream for now; it will require more funding and a few more years.

“Hell, we’re raising oysters in Coke bottles,” said Kiser. “Two-liter Coke bottles, glued together.”

What he does, though, is no small feat; when possible, he supplies spat to the handful of Prince William Sound farms, constantly shares information on design and processes and, by covering his operating costs, shows that one man can run a successful oyster farm, even in Alaska. When active, Aguiar’s remote setting site supplies 10-12 percent of seed for the entire state. He covers every aspect of the business, from raising spat to go into the nursery, growing it to plantable size, growing, cleaning, hardening the shells, harvesting and selling. A lesser farmer would be spread too thin.

Weatherly Bates, president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association and owner of Alaska Shellfish Farms in Kachemak Bay, attested to the significance of Aguiar’s operation. She and her husband Greg came up to Alaska from Maine in 2007. They visited Aguiar and worked on his farm, eventually modeling theirs after his. “He’s invested an incredible amount of time and effort in proving a small shellfish farm can succeed and support others,” she said. “If Jim can do it, it’s a really good sign that we can succeed doing this.”

A few hundred yards from the houseboat, 60 feet beneath the surface, hung the fruit of Aguiar’s efforts: about 600 “stacks,” metal, meshed containers of 10 trays on which the oysters grow, each between a buoy. He has about 1.2 million oysters out there hanging from five 900-foot lines. The line I had been working on was a new one: the beckets where the oyster stacks will hang. Aguiar is expanding.

Failure is an option

That night, McNiel cooked dinner and we sat around the table talking. McNiel, an Army combat veteran, has a penchant for storytelling. (“I fished in the Euphrates under artillery fire; caught two carp!”) He said he was “born in a minute and a half,” thus is always on the go. The conversation drifted to marine life, a favorite topic for the two. In marveling at sea creatures, Aguiar expressed his love for them; whether it’s the millions of different types of worms he didn’t know existed until he started his farm, or a sea lion he saw while longlining in pitch dark, encapsulated in bioluminescence like an angel, they are his world. For the past few days, he’d been feeding a seagull with a beak scarred like a Bond villain’s face. “He’s a friend,” Aguiar said, glowing. When I asked for the gull’s name, Aguiar looked at me like I couldn’t possibly be serious. “Seagull,” he said.

McNiel beamed with unbridled enthusiasm, never pouting when Aguiar barked at him for doing something wrong. He would respond with, “Today’s a good day, Jim. Ain’t nobody shooting at us, Jack.” He referred to people as “Jack” for emphasis. Aguiar said that contrary to what people think, he’s an optimist, though he insisted that failure is indeed an option. His goal was to build a successful business over three to five years, make it profitable, then sell it or find somebody to run it and move on to a new project.

“It didn’t work out that way, and I’m too stubborn to quit,” said Aguiar.

“Face it, Jim,” replied McNiel. “This is you. You’re a farmer. You feed people.”

“You’re gonna make me cry,” said Aguiar with thinly veiled sarcasm.

‘Furry bastards’

Aside, McNiel told me he had come about a week before to help Aguiar, who had been working alone since April. “He looked pretty ragged,” he said. Finding labor is a major problem, not only for Aguiar, but for Alaska’s entire shellfish industry. The farms are remote, and with other, more robust fisheries, there are many lucrative options.

The next day brought pouring rain, and Aguiar was up at 4 a.m., McNiel at 5 a.m. Aguiar likes to get up early, in case the westerlies pick up in the afternoon and make work difficult. Working together at our individual tasks, we said little. I began sorting the seed by size with the prospector’s tray. It was tedious work, shaking out the smaller shells and pulling out worms and mussels. The smaller seed was for the buyers, who like them small, the larger for Aguiar, who would prefer them even bigger. Later, Aguiar grabbed me and we hopped on board his bowpicker. It had no name, and its brown, decaying hull suggested that it had seen better days. We picked up mesh bags from a raft and pulled them over the stacks. They were to keep the sea otters out. His first year, the otters ate everything -- a million oysters.

“I still like the furry bastards, though,” he said.

Aguiar snagged the main line with a handmade grappling hook and pulled it over a “star-roller,” his creation, a cog that hung off the gunwale. He sewed up the bags, tied the stacks to the beckets and lifted them into the water with a bent, rusty hoist. He plants oysters in staggered-year classes, as they grow at different rates, and so he has product available as consistently as possible.

Each site is nuanced and takes getting used to. Aguiar faced carnivorous starfish and sea otters, as well as devastating winds and swells that blew most of his gear — including his staircase, which a neighbor found miles away, and his heavy sorter, among other equipment — overboard several times.

The following day was another early one; Aguiar had to pull two stacks and prepare them for sale. When I awoke at 6 a.m., he’d already been up for three hours rinsing and disinfecting plastic totes for local sale (he saves 30 cents for a dozen boxes by using the totes). He can sell $3,000 to $4,000 in oysters a week, but only around 22 weeks a year, mostly to locals and two Anchorage distributors. This year, he’s hoping to profit.

Limitless determination

The bowpicker listed heavily to starboard as Aguiar began pulling stacks at 8 a.m. He used the hoist and a knot that slides, a trick he “learned from an old-timer.” At 60 feet, placed below the thermocline just under 60 degrees, raising each stack took about 15 minutes. The surface is under 60 degrees, but Aguiar is cautious. With McNiel’s help, he eased each of the four stacks onto the boat. We headed back to clean the oysters of muck, hammering them with an engine-powered hose until they gleamed. He hoisted the clean oysters into the processing room and sorted them into boxes of exactly 243 for shipment. McNiel tried to talk to Aguiar while he was counting, and made him forget the number.

“Don’t talk to me while I’m counting,” he snapped. “If you have a question, we’ll write our numbers down, then ask. Otherwise it’s a waste of time.”

Although Aguiar can’t produce enough oysters to meet demand, he’s trying his best and expanding when he can. Alaska only produces about $450,000 in annual sales, as opposed to $58 million in Washington, according to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Aguiar believes that all oysters grown in Alaska could be sold in Alaska, creating numerous jobs. To that end, he is determined.

“You’re talking about a guy who walked 40 miles along the coast back to Cordova when his boat broke down in the winter rather than hitching a ride,” said Kiser. “He’s determined as can be. If you’re gonna start an industry, he’s the kind of guy you need.”

Ben Yeager is a reporter for the Cordova Times. Reach him at byeager@thecordovatimes.com. Used with permission.