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.