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Southeast Alaskan Oyster Mariculture and Why It’s Important

Southeast Alaskan Oyster Mariculture and Why It’s Important

Garlic butter oysters are served on a metal platter.

Sustainable mariculture is a win-win situation no matter how you shuck it. 

Like any true Michigander, I dreamed of experiencing the Alaskan wilderness my entire life. Last spring, I had the opportunity and privilege to do so. For three incredibly rewarding months, I lived on the remote Marble Island with Eric and Cindy Wyatt. They’re Alaskan homesteaders and owners of Blue Starr Oyster Co. where I learned all about regenerative mariculture, Pacific oyster farming, and homesteading.

Garlic butter oysters are served up in time for dinner.

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Introduction to Alaskan Mariculture

Oysters feed on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine algae that convert sunlight into energy. They serve as one of the largest natural sources of energy for life on the entire planet. This makes oyster farming not only a sustainable form of agriculture but a regenerative one. It’s completely free of herbicides and other harmful chemicals. Oysters also filter pollutants, like nitrogen and phosphorus, from the ocean.

Southeast Alaska’s temperate climate and rugged topography support a robust aquatic ecosystem ideal for ocean farming of all kinds. Its waters foster strong trophic connectivity. This means there are many important links in its food chain that all rely upon one another. From killer whales to decaying post-spawn salmon carcasses all the way down to microscopic algae, every biological link plays an important role in supporting countless organisms above and below its own place in the chain. 

Oysters in Alaska

Oysters are invertebrate filter feeders and thrive in these rich conditions. Only five of the 200 species in existence are commercially harvested in the United States. This includes Atlantic, Olympia, Kumamoto, European Native, and Pacific Oysters. While Blue Starr farms the latter of these, (Crassostrea gigas), there isn’t a single species of oyster native to Alaska. Oysters imported to the state for use in farming come from shellfish hatcheries. Most hatchery-produced spat is sterilized through a process of cellular alteration. This provides the oysters with an extra chromosome, rendering them sterile. This negates the possibility of them negatively impacting the delicate ecosystems in which they are grown. These three-chromosome oysters are called triploids. Naturally occurring oysters, like any two-chromosome organism, are called diploids.

While Blue Starr Oyster Company farms diploid oysters, Southeast Alaska’s frigid temperatures are too cold for them to reproduce. The pristine, freezing waters also don’t allow diseases like MSX and Dermo the same opportunity for an infection that is present in warmer climates. The general consensus surrounding tripods and diploids concludes that three-chromosome oysters grow faster than their diploid counterparts. However, Blue Starr Oyster Co. recently began conducting an experiment testing that theory. They are matching groups of triploids and diploids next to one another to see how their growth rates compare. The trial is being funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is in partnership with Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation and OceansAlaska

How Oysters Arrived in Southeast Alaska

Previously a commercial salmon fisherman, Eric Wyatt saw a potential market in oysters. However, it was completely new territory for not only he and Cindy, but for essentially all of southeast Alaska. 

“We wanted to diversify,” says Eric. “There were a couple of farms around here in the ’90s and neither of them really made any money. But I knew it was possible.” 

In 2004, Eric and Cindy created Blue Starr Oyster Co. Today, sixteen years later, Eric is a highly respected and often sought-after voice in the Alaskan mariculture community. He is a member of the Shellfish Grower’s Climate Coalition. SGCC is an organization working to influence climate action. They raise public awareness of the various ways climate change affects the livelihoods of shellfish growers across North America. With ocean acidification, carbon levels, and sea levels all on the rise, public awareness of these topics is a necessary step in ensuring a healthy future for shellfish ecosystems and mariculture businesses around the globe.

“As more of us start doing what we can,” says Cindy, “the more effective we will become.”

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Suspended Culture Farming for Oysters

A large portion of the Pacific Oysters that Blue Starr grow are raised through suspended culture farming. Several multi-tiered trays and cylindrical mesh “lantern nets” hang below the water’s surface from hand-crafted rafts. One single net may contain up to thousands of juvenile oysters, also known as “spat” or “seed.” Looking into the water from above, one can’t help but notice that the rafts almost act as little havens for a very diverse array of marine life, from kelp and small fish to various crustacean species. “It’s like an oasis,” notes Eric. 

Suspended culture farming is not the only method of raising oysters that the Wyatts implement. Hundreds of handmade floating mesh bags clipped to anchored longlines grow yet more seed.

Farming Oysters With Floating Mesh Bags

“The floating bags are done elsewhere but no one is doing it in Alaska,” says Eric, who learned about this particular method of farming from an operation in British Columbia. There, the topography is more similar to that of Southeast Alaska than other well-known oyster farming locations, such as Washington state. Eric continues, “I just observe things and try to learn from other people, but you really have to learn how to do this on your own. You can’t just read about how to do this stuff on the internet.” 

While floating bags and oyster rafts are both large and important aspects of Blue Starr’s operation, they are only two pieces of a much bigger picture. The Wyatts’ 2019 floating upweller system (FLUPSY) is arguably one of the largest shellfish nursery systems of its kind in the entire world. It is the largest oyster nursery system in all of Alaska. 

Co-designed by Eric and built by Ben Crew at Crew Enterprises of Ketchikan, Blue Starr’s FLUPSY is 56’x26’of aluminum mariculture innovation. It holds 126 screened oyster bins. It circulates fresh seawater throughout each one. This ensures that the millions of seeds it is capable of housing are clean and well-fed. Blue Starr Oyster Co. is on the frontier of mariculture in Alaska. While the Wyatts believe similar operations will become more popular in the coming years, they want to make sure that they set a moral and ethical example for future ocean farmers to follow. 

“Our passion for this beautiful land influences our business decisions,” says Cindy, “Not only in making the best choices for our own farm, but also for our collective future.”

Blue Starr’s professional mariculture assistant keeps himself from snacking on oysters.

The Future of Alaskan Mariculture

With COVID-19 casting a shadow of uncertainty over all types of agriculture throughout the world, it is hard to say what the future of Alaskan mariculture looks like. Eric and Cindy have high hopes and have recently begun experimenting in new territory yet again. “We need to get into frozen products,” says Eric, “Direct to consumer.”

Frozen products are moved by barge and truck, so it has a much smaller carbon footprint and is less expensive than flying. Unfortunately, fresh Alaskan oysters are not readily available over the entire country just yet, but that is looking to change. “People want this stuff,” says Eric, “If consumers ask for Alaskan seafood it shows demand which influences our opportunities to open that channel.” 

Running Blue Starr Oyster Co. and continuing work on the family homestead isn’t all the Wyatts do. Eric consults fellow business owners, helps other farmers with permits, and aids them in designing their own mariculture systems.

“The real goal is to build mariculture in Alaska,” he says, “I think that not only will it come around to benefit our business, but I like to tease myself with the thought that it might help make the world better, too.” Cindy agrees, saying, “Sharing information and learning from others is a key part in not only developing Alaskan mariculture but in making the future a better, safer place for everyone. It’s part of our dream.”

Subsistence Homesteading and a Message of Human Resilience

Through their dedication, Eric and Cindy built an island home not only for themselves but for their two children, Morgan and April. They spent years of working with rudimentary resources (many of which came from the island itself). However, after all that work, the Wyatts find themselves fully equipped with all the accommodations required to make a life in the wild not only possible but remarkably comfortable. They felled timber, built their own home, and fed their family off wild food every step of the way. 

The Wyatts sustain themselves almost entirely off Marble Island and its surrounding waters. What isn’t hunted or fished is either gathered or procured from Cindy’s garden greenhouse. The longer I observed and took part in their daily life, the more I appreciated all that went into making Eric and Cindy’s dream a reality. It took over twenty years to get where they are now.

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As my time on Marble Island drew to a close, I spoke with Eric and Cindy about what being subsistence homesteaders means to them in today’s age of hyper-connectivity and unprecedented reliance on technology. “It is a non-reliant way of living,” says Eric, “It’s an utter rejection of victimhood, and that is part of being independent. There are so many things you can’t control in farming and in nature, so you learn what you can control.” 

“Life is harder here. We do without conveniences many other people have,” adds Cindy, “But I would not give up the beauty, freedom, or sense of achievement that living here gives us.” 

Global Change Starts With Individual Action

Global change begins with individual action, environmentally and otherwise. This was something I’ve never been more aware of than during my time on Marble Island. There, each day’s work is necessary and purposeful and each meal is earned and appreciated.

“Living off-grid and off-road has caused us to pay attention to how much stuff we really need, how much garbage we produce, and how to cut down on those things,” says Cindy. None of it is easy, and none of it goes without sacrifices, but that goes with taking responsibility and having pride in good work well done. 

“Most people have the capacity when they are properly stressed to perform better,” says Eric. “They will rise to the occasion almost always. We can do more than we think we can. That’s how humans are.”

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