New headquarters for Kachemak Shellfish Growers are now under construction on the Spit, with the cooperative finally getting a central location to process and sell its oysters.
The 4,400-square-foot shellfish processing facility will be located on the Spit, just down from Glacier Burger. Its platform will support a two-story structure composed of office and retail space, as well as a place to process the oysters. The hope is to be able to open for business next spring, said Ted West, a fisheries consultant hired on a two-year contract to help the co-op transition through changes in processing.
“The oyster farmers do the best they can and the idea is to ease their effort where we can do some of the work for them,” West said. “It reduces the burdens for them when they each market through the co-op. I do all the marketing, but they do all their own grading and processing on the farm side. (The changes) we’re making will standardize the grading on this side so the farmers can do more farming and less fiddling with the product.”
According to West, the original structure design was 8,800 square feet, but the footprint had to be cut due to hiked construction and fuel costs. The co-op is building from a $1 million grant received in federal economic development money. Matching funds were supplied by the co-op.
The design allows for retail space to be rented out to also help pay for the new building. And the co-op is currently talking to a processor about possibly putting in a live crab tank. Then both crab and oysters could be offered from the facility, West said.
“We’ll have room for tables and umbrellas for people to sit and look at the ocean while they eat oysters or crab,” West said. “There may even be room for a couple of deck kiosks.”
In the future, the co-op hopes to open a restaurant.
The 13 oyster farms extend from Jakalof Bay to Bear Cove, and all have been perfecting their rowing techniques over the past 7-15 years. However, this summer, La Nina weather patterns are bringing cooler temperatures to the water — causing a bit of consternation for farmers. Last week, the waters at Poggy Point were reportedly measured at 39 degrees.
Oyster farmer and president of the co-op, Marie Bader, said demand for the Kachemak oysters far outweighs production. As fast as they grow them, the oysters are sold to markets in the States — usually going to restaurants.
Alaska oyster farms use suspended culture techniques, meaning oysters are grown in nets or perforated trays hung in deep waters. The advantage to this technique is that the oysters can feed continually and avoid exposure to hot summer suns, cold winter winds and muddy, sandy bottom waters. As a result of this “coddled life,” Alaska oysters are uniformly shaped with deep cups and plump meat.
Still, Bader said learning how to grow them in Kachemak Bay took a lot of tinkering.
“We’ve learned a tremendous amount,” she explained. “There are books all about oysters, but there are no books written about growing in suspension in Kachemak Bay. All bays have their own eco systems with different temperatures and conditions. Some are 170 feet while some are 30 feet. It makes a big difference in the water column.”
The Bay’s sea otter population doesn’t disturb the oysters — since the shellfish are not an indigenous food source. Blue mussels, however, are a different story. Also, once farmed in the Bay, the mussels were attractive to the otters, who didn’t hesitate to raid the nets.
Kachemak Shellfish Growers raise up to 80,000 oysters per one-acre farm. As fast as they are grown, the oysters are shipped to markets.
The oysters coming out of Kachemak are always “juvenile,” since water is too cold for them to spawn. Their tender taste is due to undeveloped reproductive organs.
“We provide a high-quality shellfish that chef’s like,” Bader said.
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