- Associated Press - Sunday, May 18, 2014

KAKE, Alaska (AP) - Timber, construction and commercial fisheries are down, the cannery closed decades ago, and the salmon hatchery here is closing next month. The Organized Village of Kake, the Hoonah Indian Association and organizers across Southeast have another hope: oyster farming.

Oysters aren’t native to Southeast Alaska, and oyster farming isn’t new here, but Alaskan oysters have advantages over those grown in warmer climes, oyster bars are ever popular, and teamwork, say farms’ proponents, can help make it a lucrative effort. Other kinds of shellfish farming provide even more opportunities.

The Southeast Soil and Conservation District, a recently created entity that aims to become a clearinghouse for information and opportunities across Southeast Alaska, hosted a workshop on shellfish farming in Kake at the beginning of this month.

Along with the Soil and Water District, representatives from the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, the Organized Village of Kake, the Hoonah Indian Association and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game attended the workshop. Haa Aaní, Sealaska’s rural economic development limited liability company and the creator of OysterFest, is an important backer of the cause.

“We all have the same challenges and opportunities,” said soil and water district manager James Marcus. “Working together, we’ll save wasted time and energy.”

Alaskan opportunities and efforts

“Frankly, we’re not the first ones to do this,” Ray LaRonde, a long-time mariculture researcher with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, said in Kake. “Your ancestors did it thousands of years ago.”

Forty-nine farms already culture oysters in the state, including 26 in Southeast Alaska and 22 in Southcentral. Most geoduck and littleneck clam cultures are in Southeast.

Most permitted farms in Alaska produce Pacific oysters, mussels, littleneck clams and geoduck clams. Sea urchins, kelps, sea cucumbers, razor clams and scallops are also permitted by the state, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

For oysters, the process works like this: farmers buy thousands of young, tiny oysters called “spat.” (Kake’s farm got its seed from Haa Aaní.)

The spat grow in stacked trays submerged in the ocean. When they’re ready, the farmers scrape the oysters off the trays and tumble them in a mechanized, rotating metal cylinder that breaks off the edges of the shells, allowing the oysters to grow deeper - more oyster, less shell.

(Another technique, which more and more farms are using, is to grow the young oysters in a tidal flat, allowing the action of the waves to do the initial tumbling.)

The tumbled oysters go back into the ocean to grow until harvest.

Farmers grow oysters in stacked rafts, inspecting the oysters and cleaning the rafts every so often until they’re ready for sale. A farm running at full tilt is usually growing a few million oysters.

The farm outside Kake is a project of the Organized Village of Kake and funded through a federal grant. After their apprenticeship, the farmers could get loans to start their own farms.

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