Oyster farmers face challenges and opportunities in Alaska

closeup of a hand holding a live oyster

A Kachemak Bay oyster farmer picks up an oyster during the cleaning process. Alaska Sea Grant photo by Dave Partee.

Mariculture is an emerging industry in Alaska that Alaska Sea Grant is helping to promote. Last week some of our faculty and staff gathered in Cordova with shellfish farmers, oyster spat growers and a kelp farmer to share ideas and strategies. It was part of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association’s annual conference.

Experts on marketing and business resources, including staff from federal and state agencies, researchers, and Alaska Sea Grant’s Quentin Fong and Torie Baker,, were among the attendees.

“We heard just how hard it is to be a shellfish grower in Alaska, and we discussed ways to ease that burden,” said Heather Brandon, director of Alaska Sea Grant. “I was particularly struck by Jim Aguiar’s story.”

Aguiar of Eagle Shellfish Farms, located in Prince William Sound, has tested and improved on five iterations of oyster cages, the gear used to grow oysters in the sea. He began with plastic cages, but sea otters easily chewed holes in the sides, reached their arms in, plucked out all the oysters and ate them, Brandon said.

The next season Aguiar switched to metal, but the racks inside the cages rusted, became worn through from chafing, or collected biofouling—creatures that attach to both gear and oysters, and limit oyster growth.

Torie at Shellfish Growers meeting-12.18

Torie Baker speaks to attendees at the Alaska Shellfish Growers annual conference in Cordova in December 2018. Photo by Heather Brandon.

“Finally, after 15 years and feeding over 1 million oysters to sea otters and sea stars, Jim has dialed in his gear and his techniques, using coated metal racks and dipping the cages in 140-degree water, called ‘hot dipping,’ once during the growing season to kill the biofouling,” said Brandon.

Oyster farming in Alaska is relatively new compared to the rest of the country and world.

“Start-up costs are high, yet this small band of oyster farmers and hatchery operators are keen to be the early adopters in a state full of pioneers,” Brandon said.

Brandon sits on the Alaska Governor’s Mariculture Task Force, an 11-member team that is working to develop a viable and sustainable mariculture industry for the long­ term benefit of Alaska’s economy, environment and communities.