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Farmers of the sea

  • Author: Joseph Robertia
  • Updated: October 18, 2017
  • Published November 8, 2015

HALIBUT COVE — The shimmering surface of the briny water is, on some days, broken by the massive breach of humpback whales, releasing audible exhalations and glistening geysers of steam from their blowholes.

Other days, slate-colored seals slide through the salt after baitfish, and, on at least one occasion, they witnessed an orca gulping down an unobservant sea otter, not 300 feet from their skiff.

Rockwell and Vera Bates — 7 and 5 years old, respectively — have no idea that the 7-mile skiff ride they take to school is exceptional, even in Alaska. Nor is the mariculture life forged by their parents here.

"They were born into it, so it's all they've ever known," said their mother, Weatherly Bates, 33. She and her husband Greg, 34, are year-round commercial shellfish farmers in Kachemak Bay, providing oysters and mussels for local, state and nationwide distribution.

Weatherly and Greg Bates watch humpback whales in Kachemak Bay during their 15-mile roundtrip commute on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. Their shellfish farm and summer home is in Halibut Cove, but they spend winters in Homer so their children can attend school.

The couple was born and raised in New England, with Weatherly earning a bachelor's degree in aquaculture and fisheries technology from the University of Rhode Island in 2003. The two first found work in Maine, managing an oyster farm and helping boost its production from 10,000 to 200,000 oysters a year. They came to Alaska in 2007 to do shellfish farming for other people, finally beginning their own oyster operation in 2010. Three years later, mussels were added to the only year-round mariculture operation in Kachemak Bay.

Statewide, some 68 aquatic farms, eight shellfish nurseries and two shellfish hatcheries are permitted — concentrated in Kachemak Bay, Prince William Sound and Southeast. A 2013 state mariculture report says they produce 1.2 million Pacific oysters and nearly 5 tons of littleneck clams, blue mussels and geoduck.

Weatherly and Greg Bates harvest oysters at their shellfish farm in Halibut Cove on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. The couple produce oysters and mussels and distribute their product nationwide.

'Got their sea legs early'

"From when Greg was a little boy, he wanted to do something like this and my dad was a lifelong fisherman," Weatherly said. "So I grew up on a boat, just like my kids are doing. Almost from the time they came home from the hospital, we'd make a bed for them in a fish tote while we worked. They got their sea legs early," Weatherly added.

Until recently when they saw a classmate vomiting on a boat ride during a school trip, the kids didn't know what it meant to be stricken with seasickness.

"Rockwell was like, 'What's wrong with her, Mommy?'" Weatherly said.

Greg Bates pulls up a 25' long mussel rope from one of his mussel rafts at his shellfish farm in Halibut Cove on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. Bates and his wife began farming mussels in 2013, and now harvest tens of thousands of pounds each year.

On another occasion, the Bates sent photos of their kids riding horses on the mainland to family Outside without realizing — until their kin questioned the aquatic accoutrements — that Rockwell and Vera were wearing life jackets in the pictures.

"It's second nature to them. They pretty much live in them," Weatherly said.

Now that the kids are older, they help where they can. But the demands of school combined with a life lived by the tides means that sometimes Greg mans the shellfish farm alone.

"Sometimes I'm envious that he is out there all the time, doing the work, seeing the whales and seals, constantly experiencing nature. But there are tough times, too. Winter farming can get really ugly really quickly," Weatherly said.

During these times, Weatherly sets her compass for Homer, sometimes staying there for days at a time for scholastic reasons related to her kids, or to serve their bivalve-business needs on that side of the bay.

"Commuting and being in Homer isn't bad, because I can distribute the product better from there. Just the other day, our courier had a problem with one of the drivers, so I drove to Seward to deliver to four different restaurants," Weatherly said.

Kachemak Bay and the Homer Spit, Wednesday, October 21, 2015.

Near Halibut Cove

The oysters are cultivated in suspended wire-mesh tray-cages, stacked in tiers of 10, which hang suspended below the water surface and the bright blue buoys that mark their presence. The mussels reside on lines, below 40-by-40-foot anchored rafts, where they grow in sock-like mesh tubes.

The shellfish farm is on a 25-acre lease in water 60-180 feet deep, and just a quarter-mile skiff ride from Halibut Cove. On days when the family can be together, everyone has his or her own role when working mollusks.

"I'm so proud of the kids. They're such little naturalists. We harvest twice a week and they enjoy picking through the sea creatures. They have a permit to collect for the Pratt Museum's marine tanks, so they'll pick out starfish or just this past week they brought in a snail fish," Weatherly said.

Other days, the kids are given rods to fish off the rafts for pollock or tommy cod while their parents work. Shellfish farming — particularly growing oysters — requires lots of hands-on manipulation.

"It never ends. We're working all the time. We'll pull up the cages, wash them off, tumble them, sort them. Naturally, they want to grow together and stick to each other. We have to prevent that to grow a perfect oyster, and encourage them to grow more uniformly and with deeper cups," she said.

Weatherly added that pre-sorting oysters the day before an order goes out is necessary. Unlike mussels, which all grow the same shape and size and are sold by the pound, oysters are more of what Weatherly described as a "boutique" item. People may only eat a few at a time and the emphasis on aesthetics is as paramount as freshness and taste.

"They go by the oyster, not the pound, and different customers want different things in terms of size or shape, so we presort to go through them looking for 5-inch oysters, or whatever size is going out, to make them all as uniform as possible," she said.

Weatherly Bates packs oysters at her shellfish farm in Halibut Cove on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. Bates and her husband harvest around 300,000 oysters each year, and tens of thousands of pounds of mussels.

Goal: A million oysters

There are other challenges to mariculture, too. Pacific oysters are not native to Alaska, and seeds — known as spat — must be purchased from hatcheries in such faraway locales as Hawaii or Washington.

"Then it's three to four years till harvest," she said.

Currently, according to Weatherly, they harvest around 300,000 oysters a year, and tens of thousands of pounds of mussels. They'd like to increase those figures in the future.

"We expect about 50 cents per oyster and $3-$5 per pound for mussels. We are only just starting to grow mussels, but we hope to produce 1 million pounds a year by 2020 and 1 million oysters a year," she said.

The blue mussels the Bateses grow are native to Alaska and much easier to manage, according to Weatherly.

"With mussels, you're either stocking or harvesting them," she said.

This is because the mussels spawn naturally and on their own, producing larvae that free-swims in the water column for about a month before it settles on something to grow.

Greg and Weatherly Bates wash and sort oysters for sale at their shellfish farm in Halibut Cove on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. The couple harvest around 300,000 oysters each year, and tens of thousands of pounds of mussels.

"The mussels naturally settle on our gear that we're growing oysters and mussels in. Later on we wash the baby mussels or seed off the gear, collect it and place it on a rope where it grows until we harvest," she said.

The spat must be protected from otters and other marine life that try to eat them during the two years they need to grow until harvest.

"It's a lot of trial and error.

"With (commercial) salmon fishing, you get it that (first) year. This takes three years of struggling to get your first product, so some people are quick to give up on it and go get a fishing permit for the same amount of capital," Weatherly said.

But the Bateses like what they do day-in and day-out, as well as in the big-picture sense.

"There are so many overharvested species and fisheries, but doing shellfish is a way to give back to the ocean. They filter the water, making it cleaner," she said referring to how filter-feeders such a shellfish consume algae and other nutrients in the sea.

And each year, according to Weatherly, more and more Alaska-based companies buy their products.

Weatherly Bates drives her oyster boat to her farm in Halibut Cove on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. Bates and her husband operate an oyster and mussel farm in Halibut Cove.

"We sell 75 percent of our product in-state, on the Kenai Peninsula directly to restaurants — from farm to table. All of our mussels are sold in state. In the winter we supplement sales of oysters with a couple of select out-of-state distributors, including Pangea Shellfish. Our product ends up on tables across the country from San Francisco to New York," she said.

"Most restaurants want as many seafood choices as possible, so there is a huge demand for shellfish. But Alaska restaurants in particular are really receptive to having seafood choices that are harvested locally, rather than from Washington or Asia or wherever," she said.

"In a normal summer week, we've figured as many as a thousand different people are eating our shellfish," she added. "That's making a difference and it feels good."

‘Superb job’

The Halibut Cove-based The Saltry Restaurant is one of those places serving the Bateses' products. The eatery has been featured favorably in numerous culinary reviews — from Coastal Living magazine to The New York Times — due, in part, to scrutinizing where the items and ingredients for their fare comes from, according to proprietor Marian Beck.

"I've been in the restaurant business for 31 years and I can say, without question, the Bateses do a superb job at producing a product that is supremely fresh, clean, not too big and super sweet. Their operation is very professional," Beck said.

Weatherly Bates holds an oyster from her farm in Halibut Cove on Wednesday, October 22, 2015. Bates and her husband harvest around 300,000 oysters each year, and tens of thousands of pounds of mussels.

Accolades such as this, as well as working toward changes they want to see in the world while at the same time earning a profit, helps the Bateses cope with long days of physical labor, Weatherly said.

"It's like any other garden. You can't plant seeds and leave them. You'll end up with nothing," she said. "You have to be there and be dedicated. That's what it takes to make a successful farm."

It's also a lifestyle they're passing on to their kids, along with a healthy taste for shellfish.

"They love seafood. My son will eat shrimp right off the gear, and oysters were one of his first foods and they're still one of his favorites, while Vera prefers the mussels," she said.

Video: Watch the Bateses at work

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel and have run several mid-distance mushing races, including Colleen running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Yukon Quest.

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