Pandemic creates turbulent waters for Alaska’s growing oyster industry

Salty Lady Seafood Company oysters. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Mariculture, which includes seaweed and oyster farming, has been touted as an up-and-coming industry in Alaska. A few years ago, former Gov. Bill Walker poured resources into promoting it, but the declining price of oil and a surprise pandemic has some farmers worried about the future.

Salty Lady Seafood Company is a family operation. This becomes apparent when a small skiff picks me up beachside, just a few steps off of a hiking trail in Juneau. The captain is owner Meta Mesdag’s 13-year old son. 

The oyster farm is located close to shore and is mostly underwater. There’s a floating dock and a large boat making up the business’s hub. When I arrive, Mesdag is just finishing up an afternoon of gathering Pacific oysters to sell in town and returning smaller ones that need more time to grow back into the water in a large square mesh container. 

Mesdag started this business two years ago as a way to get her family working outside. She wanted a new career and farming seemed like a good fit.  

“We kind of went through all our options and the cost of equipment,” Mesdag said. “And we felt like oysters were a safe thing. People generally love oysters.”

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Meta Mesdag is also the President of Alaska Shellfish Growers Association. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Other states already have a foothold on this industry. By comparison, Alaska’s mariculture startups are relatively new, and they’re being confronted by some formidable challenges. 

“I think some of the challenges that we’ve really faced that we didn’t foresee was the instability in the industry,” Mesdag said. “A lot of that is based on … state funding.”

To make sure her oysters are safe to eat, Mesdag has to get them tested by a state lab. Paralytic shellfish poisoning is a serious threat in the region. It usually takes a week or so for the bivalves to filter the toxins out, so they have to be tested weekly.

Right now, the state pays for that testing, which would cost up to $800 each week. But there are concerns the funding could go away next year. Oil prices have hit record lows in recent months and the coronavirus pandemic is compounding everything. 

Mesdag says navigating that uncertainty has made it extremely difficult to plan ahead. 

“It’s not just our farm,” Mesdag said. “I don’t think there’s any way that any farm in the state can afford up to $20 to 30 thousand dollars a year in testing fees for these small ‘ma and ‘pa farms that we have in the state.”

Before the coronavirus hit, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner proposed shifting half of the testing costs back to the mariculture industry — with the intent farmer’s would eventually pay the full price. That proposal wasn’t passed in the last legislative session. But the added strain of the pandemic on the state’s budget means that cut is likely to be taken up again in another session.

Melissa Good of Alaska Sea Grant says farmers across the state are concerned. 

“You know it could have devastating effects to the growing mariculture industry,” Good said.

Rather than pay the full testing fees, Good says there are other cost structures to be considered. She thinks it’d be beneficial to have an assessment done to see what other states are doing. 

“How do we look at these examples and help support a competitive industry?” Good said. “Because also if we nudge out our competitiveness in a broader market, that’s going to prohibit a lot of growth.”

Still, Good says the pandemic has created other issues for the mariculture industry in Alaska as a whole. A survey commissioned by Sea Grant at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak found 43% of respondents had losses of more than half of their revenue. Good says the loss of tourism and restaurant capacity definitely affected things. 

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Salty Lady Seafood Company oyster farm in Juneau. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Mesdag says the pandemic did change some of her plans for the summer. It’s delayed her business from being able to sell oysters outside of Alaska. And she was hoping to have more wholesale buyers. For now, she’s shifting her focus to establishing winter operations. She says it’s hard to envision what next summer will look like. She’s considering opening what she calls a pop-up oyster shack. 

“It just kind of all depends on where we’re at. Everything is so unknown,” Mesdag said. “I feel like for now my main focus has to just be on my kids and getting them through school and getting the product I do have to market.”

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