Emilie Springer: Farming the Sea

Apr 6, 2021

The Bates' simple self-purchase sales raft system for COVID safe, independent oysters.
Credit Weatherly Bates

Weatherly and Greg Bates’ interest in seafood started through historic east coast markets and in academia at the University of Rhode Island, URI.  The Bates are both originally from Little Compton, Rhode Island.  A small town of about 3,000 people.
     Weatherly grew up as a deckhand with her father, Bud Phillips, a fisherman for more than 60 years in commercial rod and reel industries: fluke, bass, scup, tautog. “The markets are all right there, people would come out from the cities and we just sold fish off the boat. But cod’s still my favorite,” she explained.  Unfortunately, not a very feasible harvest option for small-scale fishermen these days.  
     The impacts of overharvest are big back east so to keep her spirit on the water Weatherly wanted to engage in something more sustainable.  The mariculture industry in the state of Alaska has a long history but never really grew until permitting regulations were revitalized in the State senate in the late 1980’s. The Bates got to Homer in 2007 and there were already a few farms operating in Kachemak Bay.  Once underway, the Bates were one of the first families in the state of Alaska fully supported by their mariculture.  The family aspect is a feature that Weatherly tells me is something that has helped them through this COVID year. “We’ve been really isolated in Halibut Cove, but it’s fun to farm as a family.”
     They’ve been interested in shellfish for a long time.  Greg tells me, “Weatherly and I did a lot of recreational harvest for clams and oysters when we were teenagers and it seemed like a good thing to do in Rhode Island—there was a future in it.”  Eventually the Bates went to Maine and ran a shellfish farm there.  “We came to Alaska, made it to Homer and thought it’d be the perfect place to start up a shellfish business. We love it here,” Weatherly says.
     When I talked to Weatherly several years ago, their farm was about ¾ oyster and ¼ mussel and they were hoping to increase production mussel production. The Kachemak Bay mussels provide a native seed source.  “We collect them with spat collectors.  The mussels are wild to the region and again, that promotes the local appreciation of food source.  We’re proud of that.”  We’re taking a wild organism, giving it a habitat to grow and then harvest it. But the past three years have been really rough on the mussels.  Weatherly explains the issue as ocean acidification and climate transitions.  “The stocks are just not doing very well,” she says.  Another product their starting to explore is kelp, “but now it’s only about 5% of our harvest income,” Weatherly says in another recent talk with KBBI.
     Once harvested, the oysters are delivered to the Homer side of the bay.  From there, they are sold, shipped or delivered to locations across the state and beyond.
     Typically, oysters are sold through niche marketing.  All sensations are important for customers: touch, taste, smell, physical appearance and consistencies such as size, promotional explanations related to habitat and water quality.  Homer’s summer tourism and supplying restaurants in other parts of Alaska are a critical part of retail and things have been difficult. “We’re finally starting to see an increase in orders, it’s starting to look better” says Weatherly.
     One thing the family did do is start to look local.  They set-up a little self-serve boat in Halibut Cove to see what they could sell.  “We started to do more locally, and that’s working out well.  We had an old leaky skiff and just had a big hand-written sign that said “Fresh Oysters and Mussels!” We had strings that people could pull up for harvest and then leave money in the shoe box.  The kids are looking forward to keeping that going this summer.”
     To get a more personal glimpse into the harvest was talk with employee Kitty Zipolo, originally from New Hampshire, who shared a little about her experience on the farm and why she likes it so much.  She has been working for them for almost 3 years after responding to a craigslist employment post.  “I get up early, we’re all east coasters and we bonded over that,” Kitty shares.  “Originally, I started helping sort oysters, grading them.  But, this year I’ve only been out to the farm a few times.  When I do go, it is fast paced.  We grade and organize by cage.  Greg and Weatherly might make it look easy but it takes a lot to stay out there all day.  It’s intense.  It’s intoxicating.  They’ve got to be the hardest working couple in aquaculture right now.  It’s so fun to be near them. The energy they have rubs off on me,” she says.  On this side of the bay the farm has a wet storage system and that’s where Kitty does most of her work: packing, prepping for ship through FedEx or Ravn.”  We finish up a quick conversation: “Another thing that got me started, I do love oysters.  The Bates farm kind of grew my passion with everything that comes along with oyster farming.  I’m pretty lucky to work with them.”