Meet Alaska Shellfish Grower James Greeley

James Greely is a shellfish grower and owner of Tommaso Shellfish, a small family owned oyster farm in Sea Otter Sound near Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska.

NOTE: The Alaska OA Network is working on a brochure on OA information for shellfish growers, expected June 2023.

Please tell us a little bit about your story – how did you get into shellfish growing?
It started over 10 years ago, with my dad (Jim Sr.) having the opportunity to start an oyster farm from scratch in Southeast Alaska. His family lived and worked around Prince of Wales Island during the late 1960’s/early 70s and he wanted to come back to the area for retirement.

My dad got involved with a program out of Naukati that helped people in Sea Otter Sound get started in the Mariculture industry. It was a program meant to encourage a new sustainable industry in a coastal remote area.  Eventually, my dad got me involved and I attended mariculture cultivation workshops put on by various State Departments and organizations.

We started the farm from scratch by navigating through the permitting process, building a float house with locally milled lumber, and purchasing spat from local FLUPSYS in Sea Otter Sound. I learned how to take spat and grow them to a market size oysters.  It took us years and a lot of hard work, but we got the farm up and running on our own. My partner, Katie, helps with marketing and daily business operations too. We’re a pretty small farm, and each year is a little different and we have to adapt to the challenges.

What is your favorite part about it?

My favorite part about being an oyster farmer is that it teaches you how to work patiently with nature. You appreciate what these small edible rocks are doing and you see the companionship to nature around the farm. There are aquatic plants/seaweeds growing around the rafts, marine life passing by, and it’s all just tumbling with the tides and working together. It’s a good feeling to have a small part in it.

Where is your farm?

We have a small 4 acre lease tucked in Sea Otter Sound at the North end of Tuxekan Island. We commute from Whale Pass to Naukati where we take a work boat to the farm, usually a twenty min boat ride. Although its fairly protected waters we do have the ability to stay on the farm if the weather changes or situations arise where we would need to spend more time. On a normal day our work commute is about a one hour each way. With our delivery commute to the airport being about two hours. We are still a small scale farm at this point but have been building a solid stock of all sizes and varieties. I’ve found that a small oyster to one person can be a large oyster to another.  At this point, we typically purchase anywhere from 100k-250k oyster spat each summer season from a local flupsy located in Sea Otter Sound. During the peak of summer our sales, we typically hit about 500 dozen per week. Most of our customers are local to Southeast Alaska being either restaurants and retail oriented customers to general folks who just want fresh oysters sent their way for the weekend!

When did ocean acidification enter your radar?
About 2014,  I started to notice little changes like the softening of shells in some of the oysters, rising water temperatures, and not encountering as many starfish in my gear as I used to. I’m not sure this is all due to acidification, but it was about the same time period as acidification was starting to be noticed. The soft shells started to worry me, so to combat this, I started lowering my gear in the water to to keep the internal temps of the oysters down. I’ve also noticed an uptick in starfish, although I still don’t see as many on the beaches as I used to in the early 2000’s.

You’re involved with the Shellfish Grower’s Climate Coalition. Tell us a little bit about that group and what’s it like working with them?
Yes, we recently became members and although we haven’t done much work with their program other than maybe a social media post here and there. Often I feel small industries especially unique ones such as shellfish are overlooked in the broad scope of what’s going on with our environment. It’s nice to know there is a group of like minded business’s and farms working towards getting more information to people who are in positions which can create a change in how we treat our environment. The same environment that provides us with not only food, but also helps with keeping our always changing ocean waters clean and sustainable.

Are shellfish growers in Alaska thinking or talking about ocean acidification? If so, what is the discussion like? If not, why not?

Yes, although most of the topics may revolve around PSP levels and testing protocols, acidification and water temps always come up within discussion about maintaining a “hearty” oyster. One which can stay fresh and travel well for customers out of state.

What would be helpful information from the research community as you think about the future of your business, and of shellfish growing in Alaska?

As the shellfish industry continues to grow in Alaska, it’s important to share the positive impacts that shellfish farming has on the environment, coastal communities and how that reflects on it being a sustainable food resource from Southeast Alaska.

Tell us about a memorable moment from your time as a shellfish farmer

Although there are many, I’d say it would be while I was working on the farm one day and a pod of orcas swam around and under my work float. One on each side, and a small one literally from underneath. A close second would be when a sea lion gave me a surprise when it surfaced right next to me and wanted to say “hello” while working oyster stacks on our grow-out raft. From weather to wildlife everyday can be a bit different, and most are experiences that I’ll never forget!

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