Oysters grown from seed in a pilot project launched two years ago made their public debut August 4th in Fairbanks during the annual Military Appreciation Day hosted by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
More than 300 oysters were delivered directly from the sea to Pioneer Park in Fairbanks for the event attended by several hundred guests. The state-certified oysters were cooked and served by staff of the Alaska Sea Grant Program, a marine research, education and extension agency at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
Senator Stevens in 2002 secured a $1 million economic development grant to assist Metlakatla following a downturn in the region's timber and fish harvesting industries. Most of the money was used to develop sockeye salmon production at the community's existing hatchery, but about $125,000 was invested in a pilot shellfish-growing program. The experimental farm has grown one-quarter-million oysters, worth about $200,000 on the live market. Jeff Moran, Metlakatla's director of fish and wildlife, said the oysters will be harvested and shipped to waiting restaurants and seafood markets over the next several months.
"We have done the work and the research to prove the viability of raising shellfish here," Moran said. "Our goal now is to encourage interest among residents in starting their own shellfish aquaculture businesses, and help them get started."
The Metlakatla Indian Community is a federally recognized Indian tribe, and the only Indian reservation in Alaska. Located on Annette Island in Southeast Alaska about 15 miles southwest of Ketchikan, the 129 square mile reservation is home to about 1,500 Tsimshian Indians.
Alaska Sea Grant, through its Marine Advisory Program, provided the reservation with technical training and expertise.
"This project has been a huge success," said Ray RaLonde, aquaculture specialist with the Marine Advisory Program. "Annette Island is well-suited for this kind of business activity. The results mean that shellfish farming can play a major role in the creation of environmentally sustainable jobs for the region."
While farming finfish such as salmon remains illegal under state law, growing oysters, geoducks, clams and other shellfish has become a cottage industry in coastal Alaska. Each year, Alaska's 58 licensed shellfish farms produce about one million oysters. Yet production still does not meet the burgeoning demand within the state and outside.
"The demand for oysters, geoducks and clams is huge and growing," RaLonde said. "Shellfish aquaculture is a clean, environmentally sound way to expand the coastal economy."
RaLonde said the next step in the process is to teach interested individuals how to establish and run their own shellfish farms. The Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program will assist the community with technical training and provide workshops on business management. He said Annette Island's many roads give access to numerous locations for shellfish operations. RaLonde said the island could easily produce as many oysters as the rest of the state's farms combined.
Metlakatla also has regular air and ferry service that can deliver product to markets quickly. Moran said the reservation-owned cold storage and seafood processing plant means shellfish also can be turned into value-added products.
Since the closure of a local timber mill, unemployment as high as 80 percent has wracked the small rural Alaska community, Moran said. But Metlakatla is rebounding. Moran said the community has started a bottled water facility, a seafood packing plant, and a tour company, and is developing a crushed stone facility.
"We have become much more diversified since the timber mill closed," Moran said. "Shellfish farming is another great business for us as we seek to become self-sufficient and to create good, lasting jobs for people here.
Metlakatla's shellfish plans also include growing geoducks, littleneck clams and cockles. Experiments with these species are under way to see if they offer moneymaking potential.