Facing cruise ship slowdown, Alaskan oyster company looks to online sales
Anthony Lindoff's roots in Hoonah, Alaska, are as deep as the waters off the nearby Icy Strait Point.
The population of Hoonah, Alaska – approximately 788 people – consists mostly of Native Americans of the Tlingit tribe, which established themselves in the region in the 1750's when advancing glaciers forced them out of their homeland in Glacier Bay. Hoonah is the largest community on Chichagof Island, in Alaska's panhandle, about 30 miles west of Juneau, across the Alaskan Inside Passage.
Lindoff, the owner of Kaawu Oyster Co., grew up in Hoonah, but now raises his family in Juneau. He is a member of the Tlingit tribe, and a shareholder in the Huna Totem Corporation – a village corporation established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) enacted by Congress in 1971. Lindoff supplies premium, deep-cup, cold-water oysters for the half-shell market or for cooking.
A big part of Lindoff's market is cruise ship visitors to the region, which stem from the region's reinvention of remnants of its seafood industry. In 1912, the Hoonah Packing Company built a cannery at Icy Strait Point. That cannery stopped canning salmon in 1953, but the building facilities were used by the fishing fleet as a maintenance and storage facility until the late 1990's. In 1996, the Huna Totem Corporation bought the cannery.
It has since been converted into the United States’ only privately-owned cruise ship destination, now with two docks. Whale-watching tours and the world’s largest zip-line (six side-by-side cables, 5,330 feet long, with a 1,300-foot vertical drop) are the main attractions.
The cruise ship visitors coming ashore to eat were a promising market for Lindoff's oysters, which are carried at the Duck Point Smokehouse, a restaurant onshore at Icy Straight Point. Lindoff said that the ships generally don’t serve oysters onboard, as they worry about oyster-caused illness from possible mishandling of raw shellfish, but the locally-made product is popular when passengers come ashore for meals. He had also hoped to host oyster farm tours for visitors to eh region.
However, Lindoff now expects few cruise-line passengers amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic has likewise put the brakes on his hopes to establish an export market by promoting for the first time at the FOODEX Tokyo 2020 show, which had been planned for February, but was canceled thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak.
For now, he will focus on the Juneau market, while trying to slow the growth of his oysters to carry them over another year. To slow oyster growth and free up space for the next batch of seed, he can move some oysters to the beach. If they are higher up the beach, they are exposed during low tide, so they’re not eating. They also clamp down their shells, which strengthens their adductor muscle and helps them to retain their liquor.
Looking forward, he said that not having the cruise ships will force him to work on his logo, website, and direct marketing efforts. He had already wanted to diversify his markets, as 80 percent of his market is now directed toward the cruise ship industry.
He also will have plenty of work to do on the farm. Being located in a remote and cold-water area has good and bad points for oyster farming, according to Lindoff. Attracting and retaining skilled labor is difficult, but the clean environment adds to the allure of the product.
The water temperatures are too cold for Pacific oysters to spawn naturally, so Lindoff has to bring in seed oysters from other locations, and these have to be a larger size than those used elsewhere, so that they develop their gills enough to eat a wide range of food, which allows them to feed over the winter. The upside of the frigid Alaskan waters is that oyster quality usually declines when water temperatures rise, because the oysters put their energy into reproduction rather than fattening. As the waters around Hoonah never warm enough to trigger reproduction, the oysters keep good condition in the summer.
“That’s a great opportunity for us [with] cold-water oysters, because in the summer months elsewhere in these growing regions – whether it’s in Puget Sound or the Gulf of Mexico – virtually all of the growing regions in the world, they’re likely going to be too spawny or not quite as pristine as they would be in the fall," Lindoff said.
Another key to the quality of his oysters is tumbling. He grows in stacked trays suspended from a floating raft. He cleans and tumbles the oysters frequently, which encourages them to grow a deep cup rather than just grow longer. He also sorts them by size so that the larger oysters don’t outcompete their neighbors.
“The tumbler-sorter that I have is my main engine. That and Mother Nature is all you need to get started … Well, and a skiff and the rafts, and the trays,” he said. He stacks trays 10 high in a deep-waters system suspended from 24-square-foot foot rafts.
Lindoff is not new to the shellfish business. He previously worked as a mariculture manager for Sealaska Corporation, a regional Alaska Native corporation. He started a business of raising oysters from post-hatchery to pre-growout stage to supply larger seed to oyster farms that were being established in Southeast Alaska.
“We were like the much-needed middleman between the hatchery producers of the seed – very small at that time, which works in warmer waters, but didn’t work for us – and the Alaskan farmer, to level the playing field," Lindoff said.
Lindoff’s seed makes a long journey, starting from seed in Hawaii, then moving to Willipa Bay, Washington, and then up to a nursery in Southern Prince of Wales Island. He started the company in 2015, adding new seed oysters each year. The cold water means that it takes about four years for the oysters to mature, double the time required in Puget Sound. Last year was the first year that he was able to work the oyster business full-time.
“It’s not easy. It’s not,” he said. “We’re still trying to crack that nut in terms of developing in-state hatchery capabilities there in Ketchikan at Oceans Alaska.”
Photo courtesy of Anthony Lindoff/Kaawu Oyster Co.