ACDP Aids Alaska Oyster Cooperative

Prince of Wales Island

Oysters grow well in Sea Otter Sound on Prince of Wales Island, in fact the local oyster farmers claim the Sound’s cold clear water produces some of the best tasting oysters in the world. But, unless you are a connoisseur you probably have not heard of them. Oyster farming in Alaska is a relatively new industry and there just are not that many Alaska grown oysters available. The State of Alaska began leasing shellfish farming sites in 1998 and the industry has not yet taken off as hoped. The farms around Sea Otter Sound illustrate the problems the industry faces and the Alaska Oyster Cooperative offers solutions to some of these challenges.

Naukati Bay, a former logging town of 150 residents, is the only community on Sea Otter Sound, and the base of all of the area’s oyster farming operations. Naukati is isolated, the nearest community of more than 1500 people, Ketchikan, is 69 miles by air, and a 50 mile drive and a three hours ferry ride if you don’t want to take a small float plane. Since the collapse of the logging industry on Prince of Wales Island, the community has searched for ways to created jobs and generate more economic activity. The state offered shellfish farming leases, and in 2002 Art King, a community leader, encouraged the community to build an oyster nursery to try to stimulate the local oyster farming.

Oysters do not occur naturally in Alaska, the water temperature is too cold for them to seed. So, oyster farms there rely on imported seed that are then grown out to baby oysters or spat that can be put into trays or nets that are suspended in the ocean at the farm site. The Naukati oyster nursery provides a local source for spat, and while it was a help, it was not enough to get the industry really going. Farms still faced a number of challenges; not only do farmers have to learn how to grow oysters, they have to create their own shipping and marketing infrastructure. While an Alaska fishermen’s job ends when the catch is delivered to a processor, an oyster farm still has to clean, pack, ship and market its oysters after they are harvested. On top of these challenges, it takes three years for oysters to grow to a marketable size.

Anyone who has any experience with cooperatives can see how co-ops could solve some of these problems. In fact, when it created it shellfish leasing program the State of Alaska selected sites close to one another with the idea that being close would encourage farms to form cooperatives. But no one in Naukati was making any attempt to form a co-op. In fact some of the first oyster farmers seemed to be actively working against one another. At the invitation of Art King, Hans Geier made three trips to Naukati in 2006, 2007 and 2008 to talk about cooperatives and what they could do. It seemed like he was sowing seeds onto barren soil. Then in 2009 everything changed. A group of farmers formed the Alaska Oyster Cooperative. They spent two years working on their development plan. Initially they focused on whether or not to take over the operation of the nursery but they soon settled on building a shipping and packing facility. In May 2011 they received a grant from the State of Alaska that will help them to build the plant, and they should have the plant built by December.

What happened? And why did this co-op appear in a place that looked like it was not interested in forming a cooperative? First, Art started a farmer training program. He realized that something else needed to be done to help get this industry off the ground. He also realized that for the first year to year and a half oysters don’t need much room and that enough spat for several farms could be raised on floats next to the nursery. So he got a grant that allowed the nursery to build extra floats, and lend beginning farmers trays for their oysters. The grant also paid for an experienced farmer to come to the nursery one weekend a month and show the beginners what to do. For this job Art picked Eric Wyatt, one of the most successful farmers on Sea Otter Sound, and a commercial fisherman. It just happened that Eric had also served on the board of the Seafood Producers Cooperative, one of the largest and oldest seafood marketing cooperatives in North America.

In addition to helping give new farmers a good start, Art’s “Weekend Warrior” program did several things; first, it got the participants used to working together and cooperating, second, it exposed them to the problems that established farms were facing. As he was showing them how to farm, Eric explained how his own operation worked and the challenges he faced. He was worried about the nursery as it is the only local source of spat. He was getting killed by transportation costs. He had no problem with markets but each time he shipped he had to charter a single engine seaplane to fly out to his farm from Ketchikan. At the same time he was worried about who would run the nursery. Art, who had been running it, became ill and it was unclear who would take over from him. The farmers started thinking that they might need to take it over to ensure a steady supply of spat.

In the course of their first year working together a core group formed and they started to talk about how to form a cooperative and what they wanted their cooperative to do. They knew about the Alaska Co-op Development Program from Hans’ visits and they were soon asking for help drafting by-laws, and registering their corporation. Then they were asking for help writing a feasibility study for taking over the nursery. When that did not pencil out, they wrote their own plan for a processing and shipping facility and got a state grant based on their plan. This last summer ACDP helped them to set up an accounting system for their processing and shipping facility. It is not a moment too soon. Those farmers who started off in the weekend warrior program are now close to their first harvest and need a processing and shipping facility. To top that off, the Alaska Marine Advisory Program (Co-op Extension for fishermen- and shellfish farmers) has taken notice. They received a grant from the Department of Health Education and Welfare to replicate Art’s weekend warrior program in other communities with potential to grow oysters. One addition they made was to include co-op development as part of the training. If things go as planned you might soon have oysters from the Alaska Oyster Cooperative at your local food coop sometime soon.