Warm weather means banner year for those growing oysters in bay

The Kachemak Shellfish Mariculture Association, or KSMA, has been cultivating its dream of a local oyster hatchery in Homer since 2012. The hatchery raised more than 6 million oysters last spring and placed them into Kachemak Bay’s waters to grow to size over the winter months.  

With headquarters located on Spit Road, KSMA is dedicated to not only growing oyster seed, but also providing education, information and even scholarships to those wishing to get into shellfish farming within Kachemak Bay.  

In addition to education and seed, KSMA provides shop space to sell oysters for members of the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative, which many of the oyster farmers in Kachemak Bay belong to. 

Conditions are anything but easy in Kachemak Bay, but KSMA is reporting astonishing numbers in both quantity and size of their oysters grown.  

“The industry says you should expect 750,000 mature oysters for every 3 million that you have set,” says Sean Crosby, who has worked at KSMA for six years. “We should have only gotten 1.5 million in mature oysters, but instead, we saw close to 3 million.”  

Crosby attributes almost all of KSMA’s success to the unseasonably warm weather this past winter.  

“The warm temperatures grow more algae for the oysters to eat in the winter,” says Suzanne Torian, who grows and maintains all of the algae in KSMA’s spat laboratory

With all that extra algae to feed on throughout the winter, KSMA’s oysters measured in at a whopping 40mm — about 1.5 inches — by the end of the season, she says. 

The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve has been collecting data on algae blooms and trends for Kachemak Bay, and makes this data available to oyster farmers throughout the area. 

“We really depend on this info to grow the oysters,” says Torian.  

Because of this research, KSMA can predict which algae are growing in the bay at a certain time of year and can determine the best time to put the oysters into the bay.  

So far, the warm weather temperatures have been positive for the oyster population and Torian and Crosby couldn’t be happier with their banner year of growth.  

“We do have to clean the nursery more often with the warmer weather though,” chuckles Torian.  

Both Torian and Crosby are on the lookout for what these warm winter temperatures could mean in the long-term future, however.  “We’re constantly looking for different things — changing and adapting,” says Crosby. 

There are still many questions about the implication of these winter temperatures, should they continue. How will the oysters’ constant growth throughout the winter affect their overall taste? Will these new water temperatures allow for Kachemak Bay oysters to adapt to breeding in colder conditions? 

The continued success of KSMA’s spat cultivation program has allowed them to sell their product throughout Kachemak Bay and into Prince William Sound.  

“It’s nice to know that farmers in Kachemak Bay will have a guaranteed seed source,” says Crosby.  

But with all this success, KSMA is still looking for ways to grow.

One important part of the puzzle that’s still missing is the ability to breed larvae and get it certified to sell.  

“We need training and money to start breeding,” says Crosby. 

Currently, the larvae are sourced from the lower 48, and with die-offs occurring at an unusually high rate for these hatcheries, getting larvae up to Alaska could become tenuous.  

With the ability to breed their own larvae, both Crosby and Torian feel they could supply Kachemak Bay’s oyster farmers reliably, whatever the conditions are for other oyster operations in the lower 48. 

Aryn Young is a freelance writer for the Homer News.