Pt. Higgins students visit Hump Island oyster farm

Shawn Sande, left, gathers Point Higgins Elementary School second grade students for a tour on May 15 at the Hump Island Oyster Company floating facility near Hump Island. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Point Higgins Elementary School second graders and their teacher Carrie Meyer, on May 15, ventured out to the Hump Island Oyster Farm via the new Bonfire Bay Tour Company boat.

The Bonfire Bay tours were started in 2019, advertising as “Hump Island Oyster Farm Tour, Tasting and Wildlife Cruise.” It is co-owned by Trevor Sande and Rick Erickson.

The students arrived at the north-end Bonfire Bay facility in the company’s brand-new black vans in the cool morning air, bundled in warm clothes and their life jackets.

Business manager Mike Troina introduced the students to the oyster farm’s “Flupsy,” or Floating Upweller System, in which oyster seeds are grown. The Flupsy looked like a small floating dock with hatches on the top to access the oyster crates in the compartment below.

Troina asked the students if they could hear the Flupsy’s pump running.

“The pump takes seawater and pumps it up inside the crates in here, and then filters it out,” he explained.

He scooped up a handful of oyster “spat,” or seeds, and held them out for the students to observe.

“What’s in here, is the baby oyster seeds that we got from Hawaiian shellfish just a couple of weeks ago,” he explained. “Our water is too cold for oysters to reproduce.”

He added that they receive the spat when the larvae has grown to 3 mm. They then place them in the Flupsy pens.

“The water is constantly being moved through here,” he said, “because they eat phytoplankton. Phytoplankton you can’t see with the human eye — you have to look in a microscope — and our waters are rich with it.

“And, they are babies, so all they do is eat,” he said, grinning.

He said that once weekly, farm manager Buddy Anderson clears the pens of non-nutritive contaminants in the water, such as pollen.

At the time of the tour, the oyster farm was growing about 750,000 oysters in the Flupsy, Troina said. The facility currently is raising 1.2 million oysters total, he added. The first oysters were set in 2013.

Hump Island Oyster Company was first started by Sande as a sister company to his business, Marble Seafoods, to offer restaurant services at the farm.

“They will stay in here until they get to 15 mm, which is about the size of a quarter,” Troina told the group of students, who leaned forward to peer at the little pile of crispy white spats in his palm.

He said when they reach that size, they are moved to pens at the Hump Island facility, across the channel from the Bonfire Bay dock. He said a large portion of the oysters are market-sized in three years, about 60 percent are ready in four years and about 10 percent are large enough in five years. He said a small portion never grow to market size, and are discarded.

The majority of the oysters are sold to Alaska business, Troina said, and some are sold in other markets in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Any location with a nearby airport featuring refrigerated storage can be a target market, he explained.

The students boarded the tour vessel for the short trip to the Hump Island facility, featuring a two-story, pale grey building on floats, several docks and long lines with buoys, under which oysters were growing in crates and bull kelp was growing on lines.

Troina said that the kelp was planted in December, and finished the majority of its growth in March and April. During the time of the tour, he said the kelp was growing about a foot per day. He said one short line of kelp would be left in the water over the summer so that tourists would be able to see that system.

Bull kelp farming was started in 2017 by Marble Seafoods, to supply Barnacle Foods in Juneau, which makes specialty salsa and pickles out of the seaweed.

Before the boat had left the town-side facility, Troina had given the students a tour of the kelp processing room on the dock, showing them the kelp blade grinder that prepares the kelp before shipping. The kelp tubes are shipped up to be processed into pickles, Troina said.

The students spilled out of the boat and onto the Hump Island dock, chatting and exclaiming about the new sights. Their first stop on the tour was at the oyster cleaning and sorting chute, where an employee sorted small oysters rolling down a white conveyer belt from an upstairs room.

Tumbling the oysters at the conveyor belt station prepares the shellfish for faster growth and stronger shells, assistant manager Austin Erickson told the tour group. The tumbling breaks off the long, thin edges the oysters grow when young, and cleans them of algae and little predators.

Farm guide Shawn Sande told the students that starfish are the oysters’ “nNumber one predator.”

The students’ teacher, Meyer, explained to the students that the oyster shells are made of “calcium, just like your bones are made out of.”

The student chatter grew excited as they approached the next attraction: a sea-life touch tank. Made of welded aluminum in a large square, it held a variety of animals, including a fat red-orange sea cucumber, bull kelp, several fish, hermit crabs, leather stars and sea urchins.

Students reached in eagerly to cradle the animals, peering carefully at them and stroking their skins.

Sande gently pulled the sea cucumber out of the water to display it, and the students exclaimed at its slimy appearance. He told them that the sea cucumbers liked to live under the oyster crates to feast on the oyster waste and the dead oysters.

“They’re kinda like little vacuum cleaners,” he told the group.

Next, he held up a dark-purple sea urchin and told the students that the sea urchins liked to feast on the bull kelp.

“They’re kinda like spiky little underwater cows,” he said.

The students, after stopping at the hand sanitizer station, were led through an upstairs hallway lined with poster-sized photographs of the Barnacle seafoods owners and operations.

The students flowed into the “High North” oyster bar and were served corn chips and kelp salsa from the Barnacle seafoods company. The centerpiece of the bar was an elevated countertop perched on a replica of the stern of a boat with the name “The Kelp Maiden” scrolled on it. Broad windows surrounded the bar with views for miles across the channel’s islands.

Sande asked, “Have any of you had kelp before?” and received a mixture of called-out responses.

As the kids finished up their snacks, chatting and commenting on the salsa, they had a few comments to share.

“I just want more of it,” Kyle Alexander said.

“It’s yummy,” Juliette Roberts said, adding that the tasting was her favorite part of the tour.

Savannah Etten said she both really loved the salsa as well as the big bull kelp she’d been handling in the touch tank.

“It’s brilliant,” Makayla McAlpin commented, adding that she didn’t have a favorite part of the tour, because “I like the whole thing.”