This week on The Alaska Show Podcast I talk to Weatherly Bates, cofounder of Glacier Point Oyster Farm in Halibut Cove, Alaska. Weatherly and her husband have created a nationally-recognized product and turned their farm into the largest commercial oyster and mussel operation in Alaska, nearing their goal of shipping a million oysters a year. We talk about the challenges of running an oyster farm, how it gives back to the ocean, the oyster market, how Covid forced them to rely on the local community, and the time Weatherly shot a bear nine months pregnant and had a Bear-b-que.
Weatherly Bates is the cofounder - with her husband - of Glacier Point Oysters in Halibut Cove. The largest oyster farm in Alaska and only commercial mussel producer in the state.
They grew up in a small town in Rhode Island that had a lot of oystering and fishing. Both spent a lot of time as kids on the water doing shellfishing and saw it as a great opportunity - something they could start a sustainable business doing. There was a lot of overfishing on the east coast - she saw the decline through her father who was a fisherman. She wanted to give back to the ocean instead of taking. Shellfish farming and aquaculture lets them produce something out of nothing.
What does oyster farming give back to the ocean? They’re filter feeders - they eat algae - at the bottom of the food chain. They feed on the naturally-occurring algae. They don’t have to feed them only give them a place to grow. Growing oysters create an amazing habitat for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The more oysters in the water the better.
Their neighbors say they’re re-seeding Halibut Cove and the area is changing as a result of Glacier Point Oyster Farm. Her old-timer neighbor told the she’s seen more crab and urchins flourishing since they started farming. Putting all the oyster cages in the water creates them a protected habitat.
Does shellfish attract a lot of otters? Yes. They farm along with them. Otters take some of the mussels and oysters. They’ve hit the mussels especially hard. Weatherly and Greg have had to tighten up their gear so they can’t get. On the other hand they eat a lot of the oysters or mussels they don’t want like those on the line or buoys. It’s symbiotic. It was hard when otters hit the farm first initially, but they’ve learned to love them. They have an otter named “Scuppers” missing a paw who follows the boat around and eats scraps when they wash the mussels.
Her and Greg went to University of Rhode Island and studied aquaculture and fisheries and ran an oyster farm in Maine. Her and Greg knew each other and got together in high school. Weatherly was a fisheries biologist and Greg had always wanted to be a shellfish farmer. She always wanted to help the ocean but was sick of how political fisheries management was and thought she could do more for the ocean being a shellfish farmer. She thought working in that field wasn’t doing the max benefit to the ocean. She joined Greg and went to Maine and she worked on the shellfish farm he was working on. Within 6 months they were running the farm. They totally turned production around because it was barely producing oysters.
There was no production and within two years they were harvesting 200,000 oysters. It was super mismanaged. The farmer was inadvertently killing his oysters. He’d grow them and put them on the bottom in cages. They tried to tell him the mud was killing the oysters on the bottom because it was suffocating on. They originally had a farm that had a harder bottom where the mud did’t suffocate them. A lot of places do bottom culture.
Weatherly and Greg told the investors what was happening. The investors had them fix it and change the way they grew the oysters. They started harvesting and marketing. They got to know a lot of great customers on the East Coast and still have those customers today. That operation had a hatchery also, so it was from the bottom up.
Why did they come to Alaska? In 2006 they got married and decided to honeymoon in Alaska and they fell in love with it and moved in 2007. They knew they would start an oyster farm here. They picked Kachemak Bay because it had a little oyster industry. They looked around Southeast and Prince William Sound. Kachemak Bay seemed like logistically the best place with flights to Anchorage. It was more of a logistics choice and the fact that they got a job running a farm right away in Kachemak Bay. There was a guy in Anchorage who had a farm who needed someone to run it in Kachemak Bay.
They moved directly to Halibut Cove and they didn’t realize how lucky they were to go to that side of the bay right away. A lot of people in Homer haven’t been to the Southside of Kachemak Bay.
For oysters it’s super important to have a good shipping hub. They wanted to be near Anchorage because it’s the second-biggest cargo hub in the world.
When they first got here in 2007 they were running someone’s oyster farm. In 2010 they got their own site by applying to the State of Alaska and leasing acreage. In some parts of the state they have sites preselected. In Kachemak Bay after extensive research and working with Fish and Game they found they could apply in Halibut Cove. It’s tricky to get a lease site in Kachemak Bay because there are a lot of farms. Weatherly thinks there are around 14 farms - this started in the 80s.
Another reason they picked Kachemak Bay is because people are supportive of the industry. If you go somewhere that had never had an oyster farm there might be more opposition.
What do you need to start an oyster farm? First you need patience. It takes three years before you’re going to harvest your first oyster. One good thing they did was pick a place with existing farms so they could buy their neighbors out and take over existing farms.
Are the oyster farmers in Kachemak Bay competitive? A lot of the farms are neglected. Only them and the farmers in Jackolof Bay are really serious. They work together but they have their own thing going on - they have different markets. There isn’t much competition because oysters are in demand.
How do you determine what a restaurant wants? Because oysters will grow and grow. The Bates want to produce a product and find a market, rather than go to a market and ask what they want. They want a clean, deep cup, 2.5-3.5 inch oyster. That’s what they grew in Maine. In Alaska they like a bigger oyster - they want a giant halibut and a 1000 lb moose and a 4-5 inch oyster. The Bates grow a smaller product and distribute in the lower 48 to their tastes. The demand is better year round. Smaller farmers will grow larger oysters and sell them locally in the summer only.
Other oyster farmers in Kachemak Bay produce a lot of oysters for local markets. The Saltry is one of their main local buyers.
How much care do oysters need? They need a lot of care and handling. All summer they work tirelessly on the oysters. They get up early like 5 am. They try to get a few hours in while the kids sleep so they work from 6 to 9 tumbling oysters usually. They have a tumbler that rolls them around that cleans them and gives them a deeper cup and filters them by size and chips the edges of the shell. You have to constantly grade your oysters by size. They start as a grain of sand. You have to get the larger ones away from the smaller ones so they don’t steal all the nutrients from the smaller ones.
Then you have harvesting which takes about half the time on a normal year. Each oyster they sell is counted and chosen by hand. They bag their oysters in a mesh bag of 120. They select and count each oyster which gets packaged in gel ice and shipped to the lower 48.
How many oysters will a big customer order? Typically they sell through a wholesale seafood distributor. They have Glacier Point oysters and ten other farmers’ products. They offer a variety of the oysters. The wholesalers will take 200 dozen or more at a time.
What distinguishes a Kachemak Bay oyster versus a Maine oyster? In Maine they had a different species of oyster - a Georges River oyster which is American. Glacier Point grows Pacific Oysters which is a Japanese variety. Every oyster has a different flavor. Even the oysters on their farm, between seasons, has different flavors. The algae they eat, the mineral content, the taste of the ocean changes - and the flavor changes. Every oyster tastes different. If you tried them side-by-side with Jackolof Bay oysters it’s different.
Everyone who tries their oysters says they’re really clean and crisp. It almost has a vegetal finish - Weatherly thinks this is from all the kelp that grows. An oyster expert says they have a real “Alaska” flavor.
How many oysters will they move a year? They were doing about 800,000 with a goal of doing a million oysters. They had the crop but the pandemic hit.
It’s really busy in the summer because oyster farms in warmer areas will close. There are actually more problems harvesting oysters in warmer weather. They don’t have closures for high temperatures that oyster farmers face in the lower 48.
Staff usually doubles in the summer. They have all that farm work like tumbling and washing - that only happens in the summer because water needs to be over 40 degrees to handle them because the oyster might die.
Where does everyone stay? They have a crew boat they run from Homer. Weatherly and Greg have stayed in Halibut Cove but it varies.
With kids Weatherly and Greg could work with them when they’re babies, but it’s impossible with toddlers. Now the kids are good to work a few hours a day and are helpful. The kids are now old enough to take the skiff out fishing around the farm when they’re working. There is a group of kids in Halibut Cove that hang out. The kids also have paddleboards.
Weatherly started to get more work done when the kids were 5 and 7. The kids have a big fascination with sea creatures. They love to see an octopus or a new crab. There are all kinds of things that live in the gear.
The kids get their sea legs at a young age and are comfortable jumping boat to boat.
Weatherly killed her first bear when she was nine months pregnant. When she was three days overdue there was a problem bear - her neighbor was screaming. She went back on her porch and shot the black bear with the shotgun. The bear had tried to chase their neighbors on the trail. When she had her baby a week later they had a “bear-b-que” on the beach luau-style. They will dig a pit and cook the bear in hot coals.
How has Covid affected Glacier Point? It affected them dramatically - overnight they lost all their customers because normally they supply restaurants through wholesalers. Their business was halted. Finally they had people asking for oysters again. Some customers are calling - they haven’t ordered but are showing interest. They also just pivoted to doing online retail - that has kind of saved them to have some cashflow. People can order online and get it shipped directly.
AlaskaShellfish.net - the “Shore Store”
If you’re in Homer they will deliver on Thursdays for no extra charge.
Homer Community has been super supportive. They jumped on a Facebook page called “Homer to Go” early. They had wanted to stay closed early because they didn’t want to contribute to the pandemic, but when they realized it was long-term they started offering Oysters locally. Homer was amazingly supportive. They have people who have been getting oysters and mussels every week for over a month. Weatherly feels she is getting to know the community better. With the pandemic it’s been a blessing to get the product out locally and get to know people. She thinks they will definitely keep delivering oysters locally since they have a part-time worker who likes to do the job.
In Weatherly’s opinion there are a lot of problems with the American seafood industry. Most seafood consumed in the US is imported. A lot of the seafood produced goes to other countries to be processed and is imported back. Yet we have such valuable seafood she thinks we should keep the seafood in-country rather than eating farmed shrimp or oysters farmed in other countries. She wants to see it shaken up.
In Maine most lobsters were shipped to Canada to be processed and Weatherly says she thinks they are bringing that processing back into the US.
Glacier Point also sells kelp. It grows naturally on the farm. It sequesters way more carbon than a terrestrial forest of the same size, it’s also healthy and delicious. Five years ago they started harvesting, drying it, and selling it. They’ve been trying to market it for five years and haven’t been able to find a market. About 95% of seaweed is imported from Asia. It’s so hard for them to get a foothold in the market. They can’t even get certified organic in the US. Everything that comes in is stamped organic. They started doing small packaging themselves to try to market it direct rather than go to a wholesaler. A lot of the kelp that comes in is from some of the most radioactive areas of the ocean and still they can’t get that because they don’t have the company here to certify them.
They’ve been doing mussel farming for five years. They are another naturally-occurring species. Oysters are not naturally-occurring so they have to import the seed from a hatchery. But Blue Mussels and Kelp are wild and naturally settle on the gear. They’re both everywhere. It’s a product that everyone wants to eat locally. There used to be a mussel farming industry but the farmers stopped doing it and there was a span of time without mussels. A lot of local people have supported their mussel farming. It’s pretty cheap and commonly farmed in the Lower 48 so the mussels tend to stay up here. There aren’t any commercial mussel farmers in Alaska except for Glacier Point.
What is the goal for the business? Is it about building an empire? Weatherly says they want to improve on what they have. They want to get to a point where they aren’t doing all the work themselves. It was their goal this year to get someone to manage the farming. She has someone who manages the processing plant in Homer, but not someone who manages the farm. It was her intention to have a farm manager and they bought the skiff last fall to have a crew commute. Her goal is to have reliable farm managers they can trust so they don’t have to do 100% of the farm work. Their backs are getting sore. It’s great to stay in shape but they need to be able to have other people helping them sometimes.
Greg Bates has wrestled a sleeper shark before. There are sharks around here called the Greenland or Sleeper Shark. They’re a really deep water shark. Their eyes are terrible. They come up in front of their house occasionally to die. They’ve had several 12 foot sharks come up to die and they usually try to help the thing go back into the water. Something about Halibut Cove attracts these things to come up and die. Just the other day a stingray did that as well. They didn’t have a shark-b-cue.