OceansAlaska employee Barbara Morgan inspects algae that the organization grows to feed developing oyster seeds.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly introduced an ordinance Monday to provide nearly $400,000 to help OceansAlaska, a local shellfish hatchery, continue operations for the next couple of years.

Tom Henderson of OceansAlaska addressed the Assembly before the vote. He said that, worldwide, the mariculture industry is an emerging economy, and needs a little boost from governments to get going.

He said that OceansAlaska provides a key component to that industry,

“One of the biggest things the farmers need right now to make this work is a source of seed,” he said. “There is no seed available anywhere else right now. Even this spring, what we’ve been doing at OceansAlaska has been to buy larva. For a month and a half, I couldn’t even get that.”

Henderson said he hopes to obtain a state grant to build a permanent hatchery, in order to provide that seed for Alaska shellfish farmers.

Gary Freitag, who works with OceansAlaska, also spoke in favor of the borough grant. He’s been part of the program since it was envisioned as an aquarium. But, he said, there always was a mariculture training component to the facility.

“When the crisis came about, where we now know that we are the only game in town that can actually produce seed, we went ahead and said, ‘OK what is the constraint that is holding this industry back?’ We then, about four years ago, decided to move forward on trying to go ahead and develop the mariculture component, which can help that industry expand. We see that as helping all of Southeast Alaska,” he said.

Freitag added that the shellfish industry could eventually rival the salmon industry, which now has a $50 million a year impact on the economy. He compared OceansAlaska now with the early days of the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which operates salmon hatcheries.

“I started with SSRAA back in 1980, and I saw that go through very similar parallel course of action,” he said. “We struggled for the first 10 years, just trying to make ends meet. Eventually, now, it’s very, very productive.”

Once the permanent facility is built at the site on South Tongass Highway, the floating facility that OceansAlaska now uses to grow seed would be used as a traveling mariculture training center.

Assembly Member Mike Painter was concerned about approving a multi-year grant for the organization, thus binding a future Assembly to the agreement. He wanted to split the question. Others disagreed, and that motion failed with only Painter voting yes.

While he later supported the measure, Assembly Member Glenn Thompson expressed concern about investing in OceansAlaska.

“I have a problem with this grant for a couple of reasons,” he said. “First of all, tigers don’t change their stripes, although OceansAlaska has changed what they’ve done over the last 10-15 years and have not been successful in anything they’ve tried, so their credibility is somewhat lacking. I’m going to want to see some more evidence that if we invest the taxpayers’ money in this operation, we’re not going to have another … bowl factory.”

The motion passed with only Assembly Member Todd Phillips voting no. The ordinance still needs a second vote, and will come back to the Assembly on July 1.