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He is a bold man who tries to grow oysters in Alaska

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times
Wikimedia Commons photo

If it's true as Jonathan Swift once said that, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster," it's also true that he is a bold man who tries to grow oysters in Alaska.

First: the water in Alaska is too cold for oysters to reproduce here. There's a hatchery in Seward, but most "oyster seeds" -- as they're called in the business -- are flown in from Outside hatcheries, where they take about three years to mature.

In those years, the farms must be continually "weeded"; in other words, the nets that the oysters are growing in must be cleaned of muscles, barnacles or other marine growth that might clog the net. It's back-breaking work that takes place year-round, and although some oyster farmers in Alaska are making enough money to make a living, nobody in the industry exactly is getting rich.

But all of the things that make them so difficult to grow also make them so delicious. Oyster connoisseur Rowan Jacobsen actually described Kachemak Bay oysters -- no joke -- as "incredibly clean-flavored, with lots of cucumber and a crisp nori kind of snap to them. Salted honeydew, green tea, and apple candy notes linger on the finish."

An oyster from Windy Bay, across from Cordova has, "deep flavor: powerfully briny, then sweet, then a finish of watermelon rind and lots and lots of zinc," Jacobsen opines.

Like so many other industries in Alaska, the profit potential is tantalizing. A report released earlier this year claimed that as many as 85 percent of naturally gown oysters around the world have been lost to disease and over-harvesting, and are now labeled as "functionally extinct."

Worldwide appetite is enormous. And oyster stocks are crashing throughout the Pacific Northwest, in part due to ocean acidification, it's suspected. And yet all the while, oysters are in greater demand. Those things, and then the Gulf oil spill, sent the demand for Alaska oysters skyward, and it's a demand that oyster farmers in Alaska cannot keep up with.

There are about 25 commercial oyster farms in Alaska, selling a total of about $450,000 worth of oysters last year.

"Alaska is about where British Columbia was 25 or 30 years ago," said Wanetta Ayers, division director of the Alaska Division of Economic Development. The British Columbia oyster industry is valued at about $20 million.

The state is not blind to the potential. Last legislative session, the governor introduced a bill for a fund of $3 million to provide loans for shellfish farmers. "It's a difficult business in that it takes a while to grow out to marketable size product," Ayers said. Because of that three-year lag time between planting and maturation, the loans in way are to encourage patience.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded a $99,000 grant to OceansAlaska, a Ketchikan-based marine science facility, in order to help train and mentor oyster and other shellfish farmers. The village of Kake received over $550,000 in federal funts to provide small business development assistance to start-up oyster and geoduck farmers. (More on geoduck later.)

The majority of Alaska's oysters come from Kachemak Bay, where the ones that are grown allegedly taste, if one recalls, of "salted honeydew, green tea and cucumber." Sean Crosby, business manager for Kachemak Shellfish Growers Co-op, said that he never noticed the cucumber until he read that description from Jacobsen. Crosby just knew they were delicious.

"In my opinion," he said, "the colder the water, the better the oyster."

Business is incredibly good, Crosby added: "There's far more demand than supply."

From about May through mid-September they're selling about 800 dozen oysters a week. The co-op gives priority for in-state use, but they do get calls from across the country. Indeed, Dannon Southall, the wholesale manager for 10th and M Seafoods, which supplies seafoods to many Anchorage restaurants, said his shop just can't get as many locally-harvested oysters as restaraunts demand. 

The co-op is made up of about 14 farms, who have acreage ranging from one to 10 acres. Another, larger farm plans to start up next year.

Why farm oysters when there are such easier ways to make a living?

Cosby said that much like any kind of farming, it's a lifestyle choice. A farmer becomes tied to land or sea. And the produce, for that matter -- no matter how strange looking.

"I eat a ton of them," he said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com