Blue Starr Oyster Co. launches Flupsy: Built by Crew Enterprises at Ward Cove

Crew Enterprises workers use a crane to launch a new Floating Upweller System made for producing oysters and oyster seed on May 7 at the old pulp mill docks in Ward Cove. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Alaska has a multiplicity of aquatic farms ascending into the market with new ways to farm and new rigs to grow stock. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, for 2019 there are 19 currently permitted aquatic farming business for the culture of Pacific oysters within the entire state with approved permits. More than half are in Southeast Alaska alone.

With so many years of history, methods change over time. The commercial industry continues to motivate innovation in order to meet market demand and operation efficiency. Old methods that have been a necessity in the commercial industry are, at time, due for revision to keep up with a consistent demand.

Local and global markets have kept aquatic farmers in Alaska busy and this has some business owners rethinking their business plan. One Pacific oyster farmer in particular.  

Eric Wyatt, a Prince of Wales Island resident and owner of Blue Starr Oyster Company, stood May 7 at the edge of the old and weathered cement slab behind the old pulp mill in Ward Cove. There, sandwiched between the two moored Alaska Marine Highway System fast vehicle ferries Fairweather and Chenega, rested Wyatt’s new 53-foot aluminum floating upweller system, or Flupsy, dry docked on the loading dock a few meters from the water and ready for launch.

The farmer’s plan was to haul the new Flupsy back to POW and upgrade his old wooden Flupsy with the new more efficient prototype aluminum Flupsy. He plans to use it as a larger nursery to feed the juvenile shellfish on his oyster farm. Once mature the oysters are transferred to the next process; submerged baskets designed to expedite growth for a larger product.

The barge-like craft rested on display on two metal horses about 6 feet off the surface of the pulp mill dock. The shape of Flupsy resembled a craft from “Tron.” The material reflected a different shade of silver off its surface upon every different angle. The old Wards Cove Packing Company estate was set afar and accented the remnants of the Ketchikan Pulp Company that was set anear. Both were an important part of the history surrounding the marine seascape and the christening that was about to take place.

The Flupsy’s owner walked its perimeter and explained to anyone interested the function of a nearby feature. His son, Morgan Wyatt, grabbed a ladder and, with his dad, both were soon on top of the rig. The Wyatts pointed at several different troughs and explained the function and importance of each individual design.

The rig at profile fit a close resemblance to a floating hatchery, but on a serious upscale due to its uni-body and rectangular design. Even the Flupsy’s girth is half the length at 25 feet. Although the rig has a 6-foot depth, the water levels in both pontoons are adjustable through a submersible design and pump system, that controls how high the platform sits off the sea surface.

Ben Crew of Crew Enterprises started construction on the Flupsy one year ago in May of 2018, but with Eric Wyatt’s industry experience, they designed the big rig together during a one-year period prior to construction.

“I grew up and around boats, and its what I know,” said Crew. “Eric and I worked very close on design with my knowledge of metals and his of oysters.”

Crew studied flotation concepts and designs, while Wyatt toured other oyster Flupsies in Alaska and Washington state. With their combined research they discovered ways to make a healthier growing product without the demand for additional space or power.

“There were a lot of complications designing it,” Crew said. “If we changed one thing, then that would affect other elements of the design.”

Crew added that “this was one of the most time consuming things I have ever designed.”

Wyatt noted that aluminum tariffs that occurred around the start of construction about doubled the total materials cost for the project.

After much observation and thought they designed a trough system that moved fresh seawater in and old water out through the use of an ancient machine: A paddle wheel.

Wyatt made note that all the Flupsies that he toured were designed for electric use only.

“In Washington, where they have big Flupsies and lots of them, they are all tied into the grid,” he said. “This design doesn’t work for us, because we are off grid, and we need to go to a lot more places.”

The addition of a 6-foot diameter, 5-foot wide paddle wheel with an aluminum housing and a five horsepower gasoline motor driving it sets it apart from most other Flupsies. Wyatt scrapped the popular method to circulate water by electric pump, as seen on most other Flupsies, and swapped it with a water wheel design.

“You don't get that flow naturally, You have to pump it. The fresh water has the food,” Wyatt said, noting the critical importance of a consistent supply of fresh water.

The paddle wheel forces fresh seawater water loaded with plankton into one large main trough. From there, water is transferred into 16 smaller side troughs, and each side trough has eight grated bins, where the oysters can live in a more controlled, or richer environment than available in the wild.

From the troughs, water is forced up and through the bins where it exits the Flupsy and is dispersed back into the sea.

There would be 128 bins total, except for the paddle wheel housing extends into the trough space, docking two bins from the rig and tallying the bin count to 126. Each bin is used to incubate and grow thousands of oyster seed.

Wyatt’s Flupsy is shiny, not brown. Everything on board was constructed of aluminum.

“The aluminum is a very light metal, easier to work with and has a longer service life” said Crew.

The Flupsy’s submersible system is partitioned to the hull of the vessel, which in this case is the two pontoons that are located on the two longer sides of the craft. Each pontoon has three chambers, and each chamber has one port with camelot hose fittings to either pump water in, and lower the Flupsy, or evacuate water out, and make it more buoyant. According to Wyatt, typical operating height is around 18 inches.

Crew explained, “We’re more or less pumping water in and out to achieve a more desirable water level in those troughs. To keep the product happy!”

Wyatt and Crew both boasted that the submersible feature provides easier access to all parts of the vessel while it’s in use, as well as allowing for float height adjustment for a changing production weight.

“It can be maintained much easier due to it being its own dry dock,” said Crew. “You don’t have to put it on the beach and dry dock it to maintain it, and it can be disassembled in one day.”

Crew noted that's what they just did in order to move it from inside the construction facility there at the old pulp mill site to outside on top of two metal horses.

While pointing to the water paddle, Wyatt claimed that the water level and rate of circulation is a fine tune adjustment and can be synchronized with environment for maximum food circulation for the oysters. His theory is that there is a certain oyster seed that can be produced to work best in a specific area. He hopes to test that theory with all the adjustments his new Flupsy provides.

The rain continued to fall even harder. Wyatt shielded it with a baseball cap and looked down at the waterline ascending higher in Ward Cove and closer to ground zero. Crew walked each corner of the Flupsy and checked for slack in all the ropes.

The launch time was chosen for the high tide advantage, and there was only a few minutes left to the scheduled 3 p.m. time of launch. The plan cut feet from the drop zone height by just waiting minutes, but they also didn’t want to lose the window of opportunity.

Crane operator Greg Black climbed up and into the cab of the crane and the mechanical turning of the starter was followed by the clank of the diesel engine drive. As that was a signal to start, crews launched into position. Each angle of the Flupsy had a set of eyes and rope with a pair of hands to guide it while in tote by the crane operator.

Spectators gathered off to the side of the launch and recorded the event with cameras and phones.

The four lines went tight and the Flupsy gained height. Crane operator Black needed to do about a half rotation to get it over the water and clear of the dock. The Flupsy cleared the dock wall and descended into the waters of Ward Cove.

Once it was afloat, Crew climbed aboard and cut lose the lines to the crane. The Flupsy was in a free float with only a couple hand-held ropes as a mooring. Wyatt climbed aboard with a bottle of champagne. The two walked to the bow and said their thanks. Wyatt cracked the bottle over the front of his Flupsy calling an end to the ceremony.

Spectators congratulated Wyatt and Crew for their accomplishment and bid Wyatt good luck on his journey home.

One of those spectators was Sea Grant Alaska Marine Advisory Agent Gary Freitag, who expressed his interest in the impact the Flupsy will have on the local industry, as well as his admiration of the design.

 “I think it’s an extremely interesting design” said Freitag. “It provides a tremendous amount of filter feed. They will grow much quicker.”

 Freitag also pointed out that the Flupsy is a form of sustainable farming by only using plankton from the water.

Ben Crew and Crew Enterprises is confident there is a place for this design in the Southeast Alaska aquatic farming market and anticipates building another Flupsy soon.

“It was a fun project and I look toward working with Eric to market the Flupsy to fit the growing oyster market,” said Crew.

For the next three days, Wyatt prepared to make the journey from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales with a new Flupsy in tow. Just before sunrise on May 11 he left the pulp mill docks with his power troller “Das Boat,” and headed out of the cove north and along the east side of Guard Island.

His oyster farm and home are both in Tokeen Bay on the northwest side of Prince of Wales Island near the south coast of Kosciusko Island. One journey leads into another for Eric Wyatt.