Juneau oyster farmer battles red tape to grow family business

Meta Mesdag is the owner of Salty Lady Seafood Co.
Meta Mesdag is the owner of Salty Lady Seafood Company.

Meta Mesdag is a commercial photographer and mom to three young children. More recently, the Southeast Alaska resident added oyster farmer to her resume.

Mesdag is the owner of Salty Lady Seafood Company, a small-scale mariculture operation in Bridget Cove, north of Juneau. She launched the company in April 2018 with the goal of having a family business where she could spend time on the water with her kids.

“I love photography, but unfortunately it involves a lot of time staring at a computer screen. That doesn’t sit well with my children. They’re still at the age where they want to spend time with me and my husband. So this seemed like the perfect opportunity for our family,” she said.

When she started Salty Lady Seafood, Mesdag thought she would be outside most of the time, tending to her growing oysters. But it’s turned out to be a very different experience.

“Honestly, the majority of the work is paper pushing. I spend an incredible amount of time and effort to manage the paperwork related to regulations and statutes,” she told Alaska Sea Grant in a recent interview.

Oysters grown by Salty Lady Seafood Company

Although there’s a lot of buzz about mariculture as a growing and potentially lucrative industry for Alaska, it can be difficult to break into the business because of the permit bottlenecks and red tape, Mesdag said. Mariculture is regulated by several state agencies, and depending on the location and facility, federal and local agencies may be involved as well. Officials consider factors like environmental, economic, social and land use impacts during the permitting process.

Mesdag managed to avoid a few hoops, which made things easier. She was able to start planting oyster seed thanks to a lease transfer from a man who intended to grow geoduck clams at the site. To expand and make her business profitable, however, she needs additional approval from various agencies, including the city and borough of Juneau.

Mesdag is hoping that a bill working its way through the Alaska Legislature will bring some relief,making it easier for growers to get an aquatic farm site approved. If passed, House Bill 116 would allow a single lease renewal through a simple internal process that does not require public comment as long as the lease is in good standing. A second renewal would have to go through a more extensive process similar to one for a new applicant.

Meta Mesdag heads to her oyster farm.

Some people oppose the legislation in its current form, arguing that oyster farming can be noisy, increase vessel traffic, and create other conflicts in the marine environment.

While finfish farming is banned in Alaska, interest in mariculture—meaning shellfish or seaweed farming—is on the rise. In 2016, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources received five applications for aquatic farm permits. In 2017, that number jumped to 17, and then dipped to 14 last year, said Karen Cougan, coordinator of DNR’s Aquatic Farm Program.

Alaska shellfish growers have doubled their sales in the last five years to around $1.5 million, according to Margo Reveil, who has written a letter in support of the proposed legislation. Reveil is president of the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association.

The increased interest in mariculture has created a backlog that has pushed the time to process permits from a year to about two years, according to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. The wait can impede new business development and make it hard for existing businesses to expand, according to the bill’s sponsors.

“The state needs to make legislative and regulatory changes to make it easier to invest in mariculture,” Mesdag said.

Alaska Sea Grant director Heather Brandon and UAF graduate student Diana Perry help fill grow bags with small oysters.

Because mariculture is an emerging industry in Alaska, Mesdag said she was unable to get conventional financing to start or grow her business, and so she and her husband have invested much of their savings to get the operation off the ground. She’s encouraged by the support she’s gotten from the Juneau community and remains committed to plowing ahead with the permitting process.

“I still firmly believe this is the best thing I could do for my kids.”

Alaska Sea Grant supports the development and growth of mariculture in Alaska as a way to create jobs and diversify the economy. Director Heather Brandon sits on the governor’s mariculture task force, which developed a plan to foster a mariculture industry worth $100 million by 2040.

The plan includes recommendations to expand participation, coordinate and refine regulations, establish accessible financing, and conduct necessary research for the industry’s growth.

“Mariculture is a key part of Alaska’s blue economy. In a state with 30,000 miles of shoreline, it makes sense that aquatic farming would be great fit for many of Alaska’s coastal communities,” said Brandon.