Story last updated at 4:49 p.m. Thursday, August 15, 2002

Oysters, mussels put Kachemak Bay on the mariculture map
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: news
Oyster farmer Kevin Sidelinger prepares to hoist one of the nets on Friday at the site of his mariculture lease near Halibut Cove.  
Editor's note: This is the first story in a four-part series that will provide an in-depth look at the mariculture trade, Homer's hidden seafood industry.

HALIBUT COVE -- A couple of years ago, Kevin and Lucinda Sidelinger's farm sank.

If they'd been dirt farmers or dairy farmers and their property was under 200 feet of water, they would have been on the phone to their insurance company -- and perhaps the local ark builder.

But the Sidelingers are oyster farmers. Instead, they set about retrieving the farm from the bottom of Kachemak Bay. Kevin Sidelinger dropped a cable with a grappling hook attached to it and went fishing for his five longlines, 200 buoys, and 600 cylindrical lantern nets containing roughly 20,000 dozen oysters of various sizes.

With oysters bringing around $5 per dozen, he was a happy man when he finally had the whole operation once again floating serenely at the surface, with multi-tiered nets dangling at intervals from the buoy-supported long lines.

For untold years farmers engaging in animal husbandry have struggled to protect their livelihood from predators and pestilence. For Kachemak Bay's oyster farmers, the battle is not so much against creatures that would prey on the succulent meat of the shellfish, but against the incredibly powerful surge of biological growth that hits the bay each summer.

"There's so much life out there it's just phenomenal," said Kevin Sidelinger.

Sidelinger displays juvenile oysters at the co-op's Halibut Cove nursery, where they typically stay for six months before going off to individual farms.  
The summer marine bloom is a happy paradox in the oyster business -- an annual summer glut of nutrients mixing in the cold, clean water, fostering the huge production of mussels and algae that threatens to latch onto and drown the farmers' nets, meanwhile growing the oysters into a high-end seafood commodity.

The conditions in Kachemak Bay, which once boasted some of the most productive commercial fishing the world, now make an ideal home for this tenacious group, which farms and markets one of the state's few year-round fresh seafood products. The tell-tale rows of colored buoys are visible in Bear Cove, Halibut Cove, Peterson Bay and Jakolof Bay.

Kachemak Bay's history in mariculture goes back nearly 20 years to a handful of mussel farms that sprouted up in Halibut Cove Lagoon on the heels of biologist Jim Hemming's test farm. But by the late 1980s the state had pushed the mussel farmers, including Sidelinger, outside the boundaries of Kachemak Bay State Park.

During the interim process of obtaining shellfish-growing permits from the state Department of Fish and Game, the focus of local mariculturists began turning to oysters. Fish and Game and the would-be oyster farmers began a regulatory tussle over the environmental implications of mariculture in a bay designated as a state Critical Habitat Area. The regulatory issues still flare up on occasion for the Kachemak Bay mariculturists (see next week's Homer News for part two of "On the Half Shell").

By last year, Fish and Game had 19 active permits on the books for aquatic farm leases in Kachemak Bay, according to Mariculture Coordinator Jackie Timothy, though she added that many of these were cases of multiple leases held by a single farm. The total production for the year was around 300,000 oysters, or 25,000 dozen.

The size of the operations in the bay ranges from Sidelinger's 10-acre farm to single-acre farms like Bob and Pat Hartley's place in Peterson Bay. The vast majority of the local shellfish production is now in oysters, though mussels are still being raised in at least one location in Jakolof Bay. All the shellfish farming in the bay is required to be done using the lantern net system because the state prohibits the kind of bottom rearing of clams and mussels that is permitted elsewhere in the state.

Timothy put the number of leases statewide at 64, with the total area in production at around 260 acres. In 2001, the total gross sales of Alaska oysters was close to $405,000, according to Timothy.

Like other kinds of farming, shellfish farming is not a get-rich-quick proposition.

Still, Kevin Sidelinger said with a lot of hard work his farm was earning a living for his family.

"It's no different than growing any kind of livestock except that it might be more difficult," Sidelinger said. "There's this thought that you just throw a bunch of stuff in the water and come back a few years later."

And unlike a rancher, he pointed out, he can't see what kind of shape his animals are in.

"All I see are buoys," he said.

The day-to-day work consists of washing the oysters and other growth off lantern nets as well as large amounts of time spent sorting different sized oysters into the appropriate type of net and preparing those ready to ship over to Homer.

The oysters grown in Alaska's cold waters take three years to reach a marketable size. Spat, or oyster seed that local oyster farmers buy from both the Seward Shellfish Hachery and Outside operations, will first spend six months growing in a nursery located in the Halibut Cove harbor. The nursery, which Sidelinger manages, consists of a floating dock with built-in rows of containers for the juvenile oysters. An electric powered water wheel runs around the clock 365 days a year to keep the flow of nutrients coursing through the containers. From this point, oysters roughly the size of nickels are sorted out from the lot and transferred to the lantern nets of the individual growers.

To assist with everything from nursery operation to marketing to political lobbing efforts, the local farmers joined forces and founded the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative.

With some of the local farmers working their farms full time, and others juggling fishing industry or other jobs, the move helped streamline the business of oyster farming, Sidelinger said.

The co-op's oyster production has increased as more farmers take larger batches of oysters to maturity. Along with that growth, the Kachemak Bay co-op has done well to get its product established in the Alaska market.

As the co-op's coordinator, Melisa Miller spends most of each Tuesday greeting the farmers delivering their oysters. Once they are all on the Homer side of the bay, Miller supervises the local deliveries and gets the rest on a truck bound for Anchorage. By the end of the most recent Tuesday, she said nearly 800 dozen oysters were headed for market. About 600 of them will end up on the tables of restaurants and homes in Alaska.

The co-op is working on its Outside marketing and has begun a relationship with Elliott's, a popular chain of high-end seafood restaurants in the Seattle area.

"It's been a really good experience," Miller said of coming off the farm once a week to coordinate the delivery. "As a farmer, I know more about the connection between my husbandry practices and the end product."

Despite the obvious satisfaction from seeing the oysters headed up the road, Miller said her greatest satisfaction comes from the farming work itself.

It's not likely that Lucinda Sidelinger would have offered any argument as she and Jesse Townsend sorted oysters in the sunshine last Friday. As they worked through net after net, high-grading those ready for market, a family of river otters hauled out on their floating dock to feast on morsels picked off the bottom of Halibut Cove.

Lucinda Sidelinger smiled as she talked about the entertainment value of getting to marvel at river otters while she works. Beyond that, she said it was a clear indication of the pristine quality of the bay's waters -- and, by extension, her farm's oysters.

"Oyster farms are like the canary in the coal mine," she said, referring to the extensive testing the state requires of the waters and shellfish around the bay. "If there's something amiss in the bay, you're going to know."