KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Like all farmers, oyster growers in Alaska need seed to produce their crop.
But oyster seed has been scarce in recent years, and not just for Alaska growers.
A recent shellfish growers meeting in Ketchikan focused on the search for solutions — and it appears that the Ketchikan-based OceansAlaska Marine Science Center might have an answer.
The nonprofit center early this year outfitted its floating facility to start producing the size of oyster seed most needed by the industry.
OceansAlaska successfully produced a relatively small amount of seed this year. For 2013, it plans to boost production to a level that could meet much of the demand from Alaska growers.
In addition, OceansAlaska plans to seek funding for a new $3 million land-based facility capable of producing even more oyster seed, potentially removing an obstacle that's said to be blocking the growth of shellfish mariculture in Alaska and beyond.
"We want to supply the seed right now to overcome the constraints that are currently crippling the industry," said Gary Freitag, president of OceansAlaska. "I don't know of another project ... anywhere that can do what this can do for economic development in Southeast Alaska."
The seed issue affects more than Alaska, according to British Columbia and Pacific Northwest industry representatives who attended the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association annual meeting in Ketchikan.
"I have 150 growers ... calling me up on the phone, certainly in a mad panic and very angry, just like I hear here today. It's no different down there," Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the British Columbia Shellfish Growers Association, said during the Nov. 10 session on "oyster seed security."
Most growers in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska obtain their seed from hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.
In 2005, the Pacific Northwest hatcheries began experiencing large-scale die-offs of oyster larvae.
Research eventually traced the cause to increases in ocean water acidity that was preventing early stage shell formation, which renders the larval oysters vulnerable to bacteria.
Hatchery operators are learning how to counter water acidity by careful monitoring water conditions, and coordinating the intake of water to occur when acidity is within acceptable ranges.
Ocean water acidity isn't the only factor affecting potential seed availability. Another is industry structure.
Two of the three Pacific Northwest hatcheries are components of large shellfish-producing companies. Coast Seafoods Co. and Taylor Shellfish Farms operate their respective hatcheries to supply their own requirements, but they also work to make additional oyster seed available to other growers when possible to support the broader industry.
Attendees at the Ketchikan meeting noted that Taylor and Coast are expanding their own oyster production operations, and they need to meet their in-house seed demands before selling to outside entities.
"The feedback that I have gotten is, 'We'll try to help you folks out, but our needs come first," said Rodger Painter, president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association.
Oyster mariculture typically occurs in four distinct phases, the second of which appears to be the main bottleneck for the industry.
The farm-based grow out of oysters in Southeast Alaska typically takes two to three years.
The clear crimp in the seed process is the setting stage, according to attendees at the Ketchikan meeting.
"Larvae is quite available; that's not a limiting factor" said Tom Henderson, mariculture director for OceansAlaska, indicating that the industry's existing hatcheries can provide an adequate supply of larvae, although there can be timing issues.
Ian Jefferds of the Washington-based Penn Cove Shellfish, which also is a joint-venture partner with Coast Shellfish in the Kona Coast Shellfish hatchery in Hawaii, agreed.
"I wouldn't go throwing a whole lot of money on a hatchery to produce a bunch of eyed larvae ... if you can buy it all ready to go," Jefferds said.
After the meeting, the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association decided on its direction.
"We are going to focus our efforts on in-state production of 2-5 mm oyster seed," Painter wrote in an email to the Daily News on Nov. 19. "The goal is to bridge the gap between hatchery seed and traditional nursery systems. We will continue to work with the Seward hatchery and OceansAlaska."
The Seward facility is the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery that's managed by the Chugach Regional Resources Commission.
The hatchery opened in 1992 and is involved with oysters, geoduck clams, mussels, scallops, razor clams and littleneck clams in addition to research on king crab and sea cucumbers.
"We're more of a technical center than a hatchery," Alutiiq Pride General Manager Jeff Hetrick told the shellfish group in Ketchikan. "We do a lot more than just oysters and geoducks."
Alutiiq Pride could produce more oyster seed if buyers would commit to buying the seed ahead of time, according to Hetrick, highlighting the circumstance that seed buyers tend to try to buy the cheapest seed first. When that proves not to be available, it's not reasonable to call up Alutiiq Pride and expect it to have seed on hand, according to Hetrick.
Henderson of OceansAlaska also spoke of the need for growers to commit if oyster seed is to be produced in Alaska.
"Somehow we have to get around going outside for the cheapest possible seed and then coming up to a year like the last two years where's there's nothing available," Henderson said. "That's not a winning strategy."
Haa Aani, the Sealaska Corp. subsidiary that's actively involved in promoting shellfish mariculture in order to boost rural economic development in Southeast Alaska, has taken a step to support oyster seed production by OceansAlaska.
Haa Aani has agreed to buy half of OceansAlaska's oyster seed produced in 2013, at a premium over Coast Shellfish's posted price.
"If they produce it, we will buy it happily at a premium," said Haa Aani Mariculture Coordinator Anthony Lindoff.
Looking ahead to 2013, OceansAlaska will start producing feed-stock algae in January with the goal of producing 5 million to 10 million oyster seed, along with about 100,000 geoduck seed.
That should help to alleviate some of the pressures on farmers to obtain proper sized seed, according to Freitag.
Painter said the Alaska demand for seed this year was for about 10 million oyster seed, while a total of only about 3 million was actually available from Alutiiq Pride, Coast Shellfish and Taylor.
Looking further ahead, the in-state demand is expected to reach 20 million seed within 5 years, according to Henderson.
"We have the potential of adding at least double the production we have now with what's happening in Southeast with the Native groups," Lindoff said. "That potential for growth isn't going to be realized unless we get spat (seed)."
OceansAlaska has developed a plan for an approximately $3 million land-based facility at its George Inlet site that would have the annual capacity of producing about 50 million oyster seed and 3 million geoduck seed.
Henderson said the facility could meet the forecast Alaska demand in additional to having 30 million seed to send elsewhere.
"There's a big, big demand from San Diego to Kachemak Bay," Henderson said.
Paul Fuhs, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce who more recently has lobbied on behalf of the mariculture industry, encouraged the development of an economic model that shows whether an Alaska setting facility can work as a commercial operation.
"If we can show an economic model that works, we can get the financing for it," Fuhs said, citing the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority as a possibility.
Time appears to be factor in the Alaska industry. The seed issues are hampering current and potential future development of oyster mariculture, according to meeting attendees.
Lindoff of Haa Aani said he remained optimistic, but 2012 was a difficult year for the Sealaska subsidiary's FLUPSY operations in Kake.
He encouraged a focus on solving the oyster seed issues before trying to do other species.
"I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve and I'm all about the villages and economic development and providing jobs," Lindoff said. "We're just not going at the rate we need to go. That's why I want to focus on the oysters."