JUNEAU (AP) — Some oyster farmers in Alaska have raised concerns about the future of the mariculture industry amid declining oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
Salty Lady Seafood Company owner Meta Mesdag said many of the business' challenges stem from the industry's reliance on state funding, Alaska's Energy Desk reported.
"I think some of the challenges that we've really faced that we didn't foresee was the instability in the industry," said Mesdag, who launched the business two years ago. "A lot of that is based on … state funding."
Mariculture is the cultivation of marine life for food. Mesdag runs her oyster farm in Juneau, monitoring Pacific oysters in a mesh container and selling the larger ones in town.
Mesdag sends the oysters to get tested weekly by a state lab to assess the threat of paralytic shellfish poisoning and make sure they are safe to eat. The state currently pays for that testing, which could cost up to $800 a week but funding could go away next year as oil prices have hit record lows and the pandemic added financial pressure on the economy.
"It's not just our farm," Mesdag said, adding that the uncertainty has made it hard to plan ahead. "I don't think there's any way that any farm in the state can afford up to $20- to $30,000 a year in testing fees for these small 'ma and 'pa farms that we have in the state."
Before the pandemic, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation proposed shifting half of the testing costs back to the industry, with the hope farmers would eventually fully fund it. The proposal did not pass in the last legislative session but is expected to be brought up again in another session as state's are dealing with the economic downturn of the pandemic.
"You know it could have devastating effects to the growing mariculture industry," said Melissa Good of Alaska Sea Grant.
Good argued that a decline in tourism and restaurant capacity has also affected the industry, after a survey commissioned by her company found 43% of respondents had losses of more than half their revenue.
"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," said Mesdag, who is considering opening a pop-up oyster shack to support business.