This paper was written as part of the 2003 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.
Oysters: Kachemak Bay's Developing Aquacultural Industry
Oysters have the potential to become a viable industry in Alaska's future. With the decline of other aqauculture and mariculture industries, oyster farming is becoming more widespread and is proving to be an extremely clean and sustainable industry for Alaska to pursue. Potential impacts to water quality, trophic dynamics, and interference with boating lanes are among the resource management concerns that need attention (Callahan, 2002). We need to address how oysters will affect our native Alaskan ecosystem and how humans might affect the new oyster related ecology.
Many states have citizens who farm oysters full time and manage to support their farms and raise an upper-middle class family. Alaska can have a lucrative oyster farming industry as well, but we will need to take lessons from other states. Alaska's present regulations are too strict, and our citizens are mostly ignorant about even the possibility of oyster farming. Alaska's oyster production is still gaining momentum, and its current production does not yet meet the demand of the open market consumers. Although the supply is beginning to meet the demand within the state, Alaska has yet to expand into the open market, where exportation offers the greatest revenue.
Alaska can meet this demand by supporting the growing mariculture industry through increasing public awareness and by easing legislative barriers.
Most of the biological changes in the NE Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) result from natural trophic (nutritional) cycling between the benthic (lower ocean) and pelagic (surface ocean) levels, mostly due to the ingestion of the inhabitants of one level by the inhabitants of another. The GOA generates a high level of phytoplankton along the continental shelf, which includes the coast of Alaska. The shelf's nutrient source is from the deep ocean, since the coastal runoff nutrient concentrations are very low (RaLonde, 2002).
Farming of oysters and clams is a fairly new economic movement with growth potential in southern Kachemak Bay. The industry started in 1989, with the Mariculture Act, which is capable of a potentially significant impact upon Kachemak Bay. The location and number of farms are as follows: 20 farms overall with 18 under the ADL (Alaska Division of Lands) and 2 under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Parks Division. Bear Cove has two farms, Halibut Cove has seven farms, Peterson Bay has four farms, Little Jakolof Bay Lagoon has one farm, and Jakolof Bay has six farms. (Figures 1, 2 with location of ADL farms in Kachemak Bay with permit numbers.)
Oyster Life Cycle
Through the spring, algae concentrations are at their highest, and oysters are developing eggs and sperm in order to reproduce. Spawning takes place during the late spring and early summertime, when water temperatures begin to climb at a rapid pace; around 68°F. Oysters are broadcast spawners, meaning eggs and sperm are released into a water column to be fertilized externally by chance (South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement, 2002).
Within six hours after fertilization, the first swimming larval stage (trocophore) occurs. By 24 hours a fully shelled veliger develops, and the larval oysters now have transparent shells. After a few days, the shell has grown more and becomes round in appearance; this is the umbonate veliger. The larvae can swim throughout these stages by means of a velum which is a swimming and feeding organ. The velum has little hair-like projections called cilia that propel it through the water and help capture food (South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement, 2002).
The larvae remain planktonic for two to three weeks, until they are ready to settle on the bottom of the ocean floor. They have developed a foot (pediveliger) that can be used to crawl around the bottom and search for a suitable spot to remain for the rest of its life. The foot of these animals will produce cement that adheres the oyster shell to the substrate permanently (Patricio, 2002).
Oysters are an important component to Kachemak Bay's ecosystem. They act as a sponge to all the excess substances that create an unhealthy environment for other animals of the sea. Oysters and other shellfish constantly filter the water to feed upon algae while taking in other debris that cloud the water, thereby improving overall water quality of the bay (Patricio, 2002).
While oysters are not invasive because they cannot reproduce on their own in Alaska's cold waters, they are still considered a nonnative species. Exotic species are also called invasive, introduced, alien or non-indigenous species. They have the ability to disrupt native biological communities by contending with native species for space, food, and other resources; or by preying upon native species, especially juveniles. During recent years, biologists have studied the potential for harmful, exotic marine species introductions into Alaskan waters via oil tanker ballast water discharge. This cooperative project between the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen's Advisory Council, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the oil shipping companies, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins to address the same concern for Kachemak Bay (Sonnevill, 2002).
Boats traveling the worlds' oceans can pick up "hitchhiking" flora and fauna on their hulls and in their ballast water tanks. However, exotic species introductions do not always alter the structure of the local marine biological area. Often, introduced species cannot survive in their new environments because the water may be too warm, cold, salty, or otherwise different from their native environments. However, when exotic species can adapt and survive, they can cause overwhelming changes in the ecosystem. For example, the European green crab (Carcinus maenus), which has invaded the west coast of the United States, avidly consumes native juvenile clams and oysters, eating and out competing native crabs.
Strict laws govern intentional introduction of exotic species. However, many get through despite these regulations. Therefore, we have to work to prevent the unintentional transfer of organisms, since most introductions are the result of human activities. Organisms can be transported around the world in many ways. For example, shipments of live oysters may carry oyster predators and diseases; boring and fouling organisms such as barnacles and mussels attach to ship hulls and can travel across oceans. Aquaculture is a major pathway through which we introduce non-native species into inland and coastal waters. Historically, culture of finfish and shellfish has been a major path for both intentional and unintentional introductions. Intentional introduction of the Pacific oyster to the Washington coast early in the century brought several unwanted species introductions, including the oyster drill (Urosalpinx perrugata) (Sonnevil, 2002). Cultured non-native species can also escape from captivity. The aquaculture industry is now severely regulated to minimize introductions.
Kachemak Bay has a high potential for invasions because it receives regular oil tanker, wood-chip, and other boat traffic from outside of Alaska. Furthermore, species stowed away in ships from high latitude ports, such as Vladivostok, Russia, may thrive in similar temperatures to Kachemak Bay.
A disease that has become a large issue lately is MSX infection. MSX is caused by the microscopic parasite Haplosporidium nelsoni and recently has attacked the eastern seaboard, eliminating, in some cases, 85 to 90 percent of an oyster population. (ENS. 2002). This is the same disease that wiped out the oysters in Chesapeake Bay in the 1950's (Sonnevil, 2002). This disease has no known cause and any cases have been immediately quarantined and sent for analysis. Sonnevil proposed that this disease might have been a result of a ship introducing the parasite though its ballast water. The stringent ballast water regulations and regulations on oyster farming in Alaska were placed with hopes of discouraging episodes such as the MSX outbreak from occurring in Alaska.
Although MSX remains but a frightening possibility, Alaska has already had cases of alien oyster parasites. Many oyster farmers have reported 'boils' in the shells of their harvest; a trademark sign of the 'blister worm,' or mud worm (Polydora websteri), a creature native to Washington, but hereto for unknown to Alaska. Although the worm has never been seen directly, the evidence in the shells of the oysters is unmistakable. However, the blister worm is not the only new arrival in the world of shellfish parasites. The boring sponge (Cliona spp.), a harmless but cosmetically damaging parasite, has also been sighted. This organism, as its name suggests, bores tiny holes in the shell of an oyster. Although the meat of the oyster is undamaged, the oyster becomes unmarketable, and useless to the farmer. Although intentional introduction of exotic species is illegal, unintentional deposits are still a valid concern. The oyster is a fragile species, and foreign invaders could easily disrupt crops (Sonnevil, 2002).
The primary industries in the GOA region are related to natural resourse extraction. Upwelling of deep oceanic water in the central GOA tends to divert surface waters away from the region, moving pollutants out of the gulf. The relatively small surface area provides few regions for accumulation of pollutants before they are flushed out of the Gulf by the heavy rainfall. However, there are still various polluting agents, including butyltins, hydrocarbons, metals, and some of the less persistent chlorine pesticides (Short and Sharp, 1989).
Fresh and marine water quality may be threatened by a multitude of sources. Instead of using traditional sewage treatments, citizens living in the bay commonly use septic and outhouses to dispose of wastes (Lichfield, 1999). Septic systems and outhouses in bad condition can contribute to water quality degradation, especially as population increases. Other pollution problems include stream sedimentation from reckless construction and logging practices and fecal matter from agricultural development. For example, a study of the Fox River found that it contained high levels of fecal coliform bacteria during a time when herds of cattle were grazing on the surrounding Fox River Flats (Alaska Power Authority, 1984).
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) supervises water quality to ensure the safety and quality of shellfish grown in bays in the south. Data from sites between the Martin River and Barabara Point in Michigan indicate water quality is within acceptable limits as set by state law (18 AAC 70). However, within enclosed bays, such as Halibut and Bear Coves, DEC data indicate that bacteria and other pollutants from gray water discharge are causing water quality problems (Ostasz and Thomas 1996).
Water quality also may be harmed by sewage in the estuary, such as fish processing wastes, sewage discharges, boat discharges, and other wastes from industrial activities related to marine transportation.
With the oil industry and other industries in Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula, hydrocarbon contamination is another concern. Studies found very high hydrocarbon concentrations in the sediments of the Bay (Atlas et al. 1983). The origin of the hydrocarbons could be anthropogenic; coal and other natural petroleum resources also add to "background" levels of hydrocarbon in the sediments.
PSP (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) & Other Diseases
Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) has occurred in northwestern waters for over 200 years and has put severe stress on the shellfish economy of the West Coast. Although PSP toxins do not harm shellfish, when marine mammals or humans ingest contaminated shellfish, extreme illness - even mortality - may occur. The toxins disrupt the nervous system, first causing tingling, numbness or burning of the lips and tongue. If a large amount of the toxin has been ingested, symptoms progress to a tingling of fingers and toes, loss of control in the arms and legs, giddiness, a rash, and difficulty in breathing. In non-lethal cases, the symptoms may last several days. Some may survive if life support is available (Washington Sea Grant Program, 2002).
PSP is a toxin produced as a normal by-product by the microscopic single celled dinoflagellate algae of the genus Alexandrium. Bivalve shellfish feeding on these toxic algae may accumulate PSP toxins at concentrations unsafe for human consumption.
PSP toxins are saxitoxins. Saxitoxins are neurotoxins that act to block movement of sodium through nerve cells, thus stopping the flow of nerve impulse. Side effects of this toxin include numbness, paralysis, and disorientation. The toxicity of PSP is so strong that its effects are said to be 1,000 times greater than cyanide. Unfortunately, there are no antidotes for PSP, and all cases require immediate medical attention or death will result.
The saxitoxins mainly appear during summer hours due to the fact that the dinoflagellate life cycle is accelerated with heat. Six main factors determine the level of saxitoxins in a shellfish. They are as follows:
The oysters in Kachemak Bay, and oysters elsewhere in Alaska, serve as an advantage for the community because they act as a monitoring system for marine toxins (i.e., PSP). Therefore, if oysters are being farmed and exported in the area, it means PSP toxin levels are at a safe level. When PSP levels go beyond the level of safety (30µg[microgram]/100g) then oysters are still farmed but no product can be exported. Once the levels of PSP are lowered and verified through daily testing then export can once again commence.
Alaska has a past history of shellfish poisoning. During 1998, dungeness crab (Cancer Magister) in Kodiak reached PSP levels of 80µg/100g (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 1998). An oyster farm on the north coast of Chicagof Island showed PSP levels of 151-234 µg/100g on June 15, and later that month showed 92/63/78 and 87 µg/100g. But a week later, the levels dropped down to 41 µg/100g (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 1998). Also, in 1998, in Little Duncan Bay PSP levels have fluctuated between 83 µg/100g to 306 µg/100g, which is dramatically higher than 1997's levels of 32 µg/100g (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 1998). China Poot Bay continues to stay above acceptable levels of PSP toxin, and has been closed since August of 1997 (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 1998).
The presence of PSP has severely limited the development of a large-scale shellfish industry in Alaska, where the annual, sustainable shellfish harvest has been estimated in excess of 22 million kilograms. Increased testing of commercially harvested shellfish has allowed the industry to grow in recent years, but vast expanses of coastline remain unexploited.
Blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas), scallops (Parvamussium alaskense), clams (Periploma aleuticum), sea urchins (Arbacia punctulata), sea cucumbers (Holothuria glaberrima), and kelp are species that have been authorized to be cultured in Kachemak Bay by permit. Wind, waves, water depth, ice conditions, water quality, and technological constraints limit the number of sites suitable for aquatic farming. The DNR is responsible for leasing sites suitable for mariculture. In addition, two authorizations are required from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for shellfish within the reserve; an aquatic farm operations permit and a Special Areas Permit (Fish and Game, 2002).
Many estuaries in Alaska produce so much high-quality plankton during certain times of the year that filter feeding oysters in Alaska can match growth achieved by shellfish raised in warmer waters of the Pacific Northwest. Cold, clean water also reduces bacterial contamination, extending shelf life and assuring safety when eating cultured oysters, especially when eaten raw. Cold water retards maturation in oysters, and thus, high-quality bivalves are available in Alaska, year round. Because they cannot reproduce, wild or naturally occurring oysters are very uncommon in Alaska.
A shellfish farmer buys or collects juvenile shellfish, called "spat." The farmer puts the spat in special nets or lines that are anchored in the ocean. The animals feed by filtering the abundant, high-quality plankton that naturally occur in the water. The farmer must keep the animals clean from algae and protect them from predators. He then harvests the animals when they grow to a marketable size. It takes an oyster anywhere from 18 to 36 months to grow to market size (Callahan, 2002).
A potential farm must have excellent tidal flushing so that plankton can be carried to the site and waste can be removed at the same time. The site must also have protection from storms, as storms can cause severe damage to a harvest site. The site must be reasonably close to the markets so that transportation costs, one of the greatest expenses in oyster farming, can be kept down. The farmer must also have ready access to the site (Callahan, 2002).
The oyster is so new to Alaska that start up costs for oyster farmers are phenomenally high. So far, most farms make some income, but nowhere enough to have that be their sole business. Of the 56 registered farms in Alaska, only two provide enough revenue to support the owners. These farms are usually so remote that the transportation costs alone are extremely high. Bob Hartley, for example, lives in Homer and farms in Peterson Bay. Shellfish farming itself is also extremely difficult. The farms need to be operated on a daily basis and worked all year (Callahan, 2002).
The work involved in maintaining a successful oyster farming operation is deceptively difficult. There is a popular misconception that after a farmer drops in the oyster spat, his work is done. This is hardly the case. Saltwater is one of the most destructive environments for machinery, and every piece of the oyster farm needs continuous maintenance. In addition to the corrosive influence of ocean water, oyster farmers must also deal with rival shellfish. Mussels are a serious nuisance. All equipment must be cleaned at least daily to remove any growth (crabs, barnacles, algae, mussels, and other forms of aquatic larvae) attached to the machinery. For example, Kevin and Lucinda Sidelinger owned a farm that sank due to excessive marine larval growth. They lost significant revenue pulling their farm off of the sea floor. The work schedule is hectic and unpredictable, usually roughly based around the tides, sometimes leading to very late work hours, and almost always leading to erratic sleep patterns. The farms are often in remote locations, and since daily trips are required to check and clean the nets, transportation is the leading overhead in oyster farming (Sepp, 2002).
The oysters are grown using longline techniques. Longline farming is accomplished by stringing a line between buoys and hanging lantern nets down from the line. Oysters are then grown on the nets and the whole apparatus is anchored to the sea floor with weights.
The Alaskan oyster is in high demand, due to some unique properties. In fact, many oyster connoisseurs claim that Alaskan oysters are among the best oysters in the world. A lack of exposure to heavy minerals in our oceanic sediment results in the oyster spending less energy building its shell, resulting in increased stores of sugar in the oyster tissue. In short, it's sweeter. The uniform, cold, and clean growing conditions present in Alaska also give the oyster a very full deep cup shape to its shell, which gives more space for meat and fatty tissue. The Kachemak Bay oyster also has the benefit of being devoid of any artificial toxins; the bay has some of the cleanest water of any in the world. All of these factors come together to form a highly desirable product, and a highly desirable product makes for a very fertile market (Hartley, 2002).
Approximately 15% of Kachemak Bay's 40,000 acres are workable sites for oyster production. Only 50 acres are presently being used; 0.125% of the total area, and less than half of the viable territory. The average oyster farm in Kachemak Bay is approximately 3.5 acres, producing roughly 20,000 oysters per acre if the farm is at an optimum level of productivity. At roughly $0.40 per oyster, the annual income is $28,000. When the costs for maintaining the equipment required to sustain an oyster farm are factored in, $28,000 becomes a pretty meager salary for such demanding work. However, the optimum size for an oyster farm is about 5 acres, which is the maximum amount one family can reasonably expect to harvest from. This produces about $40,000 per year, a modest income, assuming that nothing goes wrong with the farm.
Authorization routinely is required by the Alaska DNR to get an aquatic farm lease, then the ADF&G for the oyster permit, and the DEC to test the water quality. All this to site and operate aquatic farm projects is listed below:
The following federal authorizations may also be required:
Potential farmers can apply for an Aquatic Farm Permit only during a 120-day opening that is established by the DNR. Typically this application process is open from January through April. Their application is a consolidated package, combining all required state and federal permits. There is also a $100 fee for merely applying. The process then takes around 10 months to go through the regulatory process. Once the permit is issued, it lasts for 10 years before the permit must be renewed (Callahan, 2002). The only restriction is if the oyster farmers do not make $3,000 in the first year of operation, then the lease is revoked.
A growing area classification must be completed before shellfish may be harvested for sale. This may start anytime after the permits/leases have been obtained from the ADF&G and DNR. This classification is a two-part process: the water quality survey and the shoreline survey (Fish and Game, 2002).
The water quality survey consists of the collection of water samples that are taken from designated stations. The number of water samples can vary from 15 to 30 depending on the area classification; 15 samples for remote areas with no human habitation and 30 samples for an approved area where human habitation is present (Callahan, 2002).
The shoreline sanitary survey is a physical onsite evaluation of all actual and potential sources of pollution that may affect the growing area. Water samples may be taken during the shoreline survey. These water samples must be taken by a trained individual or by DEC personnel. The DEC personnel must perform all the shoreline work (Callahan 2002).
There is a cooperative with 14 members in Kachemak Bay for marketing and purchase of seed. The DNR typically issues permits of three-year duration for shellfish farms. Farmers seek less stringent regulations to provide a longer planning horizon with less risk.
In light of the these opportunities and challenges, the Pacific Shellfish Institute (PSI) has encouraged shellfish growers, tribes, agencies, and the shellfish research community to establish goals for the year 2010 and the initiatives and research priorities necessary to achieve them. The PSI Board of Directors will use these goals and priorities as they coordinate PSI's research efforts. They will also be circulated by the PSI to various research institutions, granting entities and resource management agencies with a request for their assistance in completing the initiatives and research priorities.
Prior to the 2010 goals initiative, there has been little effort to identify and prioritize shellfish research needs. Research institutions have been criticized for not responding to public and private sector needs. Yet, with the limited input from industry, tribes and agencies that these institutions have received, this criticism is probably not well deserved.
All this action is very important because with lack of research and lack of compiling information it cannot be properly harnessed. The 2010 goals are a way of solving many problems the oyster industry currently faces. If the PSI succeeds the oyster industry could become a thriving industry.
Washington—An Effective Approach:
Washington State brings in approximately
$40 million annually from oyster farming alone, more than half of the
state's total income from aquatic harvests.
The oyster industry in Puget Sound is one of the two most significant sources of commercial oysters nationwide, and unlike Chesapeake Bay, the level of production has increased in recent years. Shellfish industry jobs were a significant employment base for rural counties. Shellfish aquaculture is one of the few resource-based industries that demonstrate long-term, sustainable economic growth in distressed communities.
In addition to expanding farming operations beyond clams and oysters to mussels, Puget Sound growers have adopted new incubation and culture methods. More growers have been using floating aquaculture structures that increase production densities and minimize predation by animals that inhabit the seafloor. Washington aquaculturists are leaders in hatchery technology, nursery systems, grow-out techniques and selective breeding. For example, Washington researchers improved the growth rates of pan-sized Coho salmon and developed the triploid oyster (a sterile variety that is marketable year around).
Because of these aforementioned technological advances, annual shellfish production in Puget Sound from 1979 to 1993 increased from approximately 4.5 million to 9.6 million pounds.
Washington's fish and shellfish farms are among the most innovative and productive in the world. They are also highly regulated and vulnerable to water-borne disease, pollution and toxic algae blooms. For nearly three decades Washington Sea Grant Program has served as an industry problem-solver, bringing researchers, regulatory agencies and industry together to keep Washington-raised oysters, clams, salmon and mussels moving to market.
Washington Sea Grant Program (WSGP) supports the fishing industry by supplying the applied and basic research as well as information on water quality, marketing, food science, disease control and planktonic blooms. WSGP specialists address problems faced by seafood producers and bring them to the attention of researchers. They also educate the public about aquaculture's contribution to the state economy (People for Puget Sound, 2002).
Recently, with other local salmon fisheries industries in decline, and competition from out of state halibut and cod markets, Alaska needs to diversify its economy. Oyster farming has proven to be a stable and highly productive economic venture for other states. These states, such as Washington, can serve as an example to the developing Alaskan industry. Kachemak Bay, as well as other areas exploring the oyster industry, can learn from both the mistakes and successes of those who have come before them. However, what works for other states may or may not be right for Alaska and for Kachemak Bay. In pursuing oyster farming as an aspect of Alaska's economy, environmental organizations, legislators, and oyster farmers must all work closely together and continue to address and incorporate the interests of the local community members.
In order to strengthen oyster farming in the Kachemak Bay area as an economically viable industry in Alaska, we propose that the oyster production of Kachemak Bay be optimized while maintaining a stable ecology. We must appeal to prospective farmers and enhance consumer interest while still upholding the standards and regulations that safeguard the environment. Through public awareness we can foster interest in the oyster industry and economy.
Education, politics, and advertising all play a major part in the development and the success of the oyster industry. Working with agencies who are addressing these fields will spread awareness and further stimulate its development. We are scheduled to give oral and multimedia presentations covering, "oyster farming in Alaska's economy" to the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Homer Chamber of Commerce. The main goal is to gain input from these assemblies as to any questions or ideas they might have, and ultimately to address and make new contacts.
We will also bring our presentation to Kenai Peninsula Borough classrooms, ranging from elementary to high school. We can educate both school age students and adults in the education system by offering classes and clinics to people who are interested in the biological and/or economical aspects of mariculture. We are proposing the school district institute a connections class for local high schools, for the Kenai Peninsula Community College Campus, and the Kachemak Bay Community Campus. Bob Hartley, one of the first oyster growers in Kachemak Bay, is considering hosting field trips to his farm as he has done in the past. On a state-wide level, we can encourage Alaskan universities and other research entities to become involved in the Pacific Shellfish Institute's 2010 Goals initiative.
We will work with the DNR, who currently manages advertising and public relations for the shellfish industry, in order to develop a marketing strategy to increase demand and profit. Outreach efforts include writing up a public service announcement to be aired on public radio that will serve as a state of the industry address, informing the public of current events within the industry and of employment opportunities. We will also publish a pamphlet on the economy of oyster farming, what's happening, and that this is a reasonable venture.
The Kachemak Bay Oyster Grower's Co-op., and other such local and state institutions, are teaming with legislators and the ADF&G to revise the, what many call "overly stringent" regulations on oyster farming. Bob Hartley has faith that by passing new legislation to make application less daunting and regulations more understandable, more prospective farmers will be drawn to the industry. These groups are also working to lower the leasing price, which is presently the most expensive in the nation. Coupled with incentives and/or tax returns for model farmers, this will bring more, hard-working individuals into the industry.
Enhancing public trust and public education is key in the successful development of the oyster industry in Kachemak Bay.
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