Alaskans who are engaged in or interested in mariculture are invited to become founding members in a new group that will advance the growing industry across the state.
The newly formed Alaska Mariculture Alliance (AMA) is a private non-profit successor to a five-year task force formed in 2016 by Governor Walker and re-authorized in 2018 by Governor Dunleavy. The task force will sunset on June 30.
“One of the priority recommendations was to create a long term entity that would coordinate and support development of a robust and sustainable mariculture industry to produce shellfish and aquatic plants for the long-term benefit of Alaska’s economy, environment and communities,” said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which administrated the task force and will do so for the AMA.
Decker clarified that Alaska mariculture encompasses farming of shellfish and aquatic plants and also includes enhancement and restoration projects.
There are 76 active aquatic farm and nursery permits in Alaska that when combined with 35 pending new applications, comprise 1631.32 acres, according to the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. Some growers also are interested in sea cucumbers, geoduck clams and abalone.
Twenty-eight growers are making sales so far which in 2020 dropped to $1.08 million, down from $1.5 million, with Pacific oysters making up about 80% of the value. Sales of ribbon and sugar kelp doubled, topping 230,000 pounds valued at nearly $200,000, a nice jump from $60,000 in 2019
“Seaweed is a newer industry even for the U.S. so there’s still a lot to learn,” Decker said. “One of the big challenges is we really need people and companies to jump into seaweed processing. That’s the real bottleneck right now – for the number of people who are interested in farming we need more companies doing the processing.”
Besides its wide usage in foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, fertilizers and industrial products, seaweeds also benefit the planet, said Sam Rabung, director of ADF&G’s commercial fisheries division who has more than 35 years of experience in mariculture.
“We’re dealing with ocean acidification and one of the main things that drives seaweed or kelp growth is extracting carbon from the water. It can have what they call a halo effect with lower acidic levels in areas that have high levels of seaweed growth. That benefits everything,” he said.
The newly forming Alliance has a good foundation, Decker added, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“It’s exciting to be in on the ground floor of something new. It can also be frustrating because there’s no written book and in some cases, we’re learning as we go. But we have our eyes wide open and it’s an exciting time for Alaska mariculture. So, if you care about this and want to have an impact, it’s important to get a seat at the table” she said.
Ultimately, the goal is to grow a $100 million industry by 2038. Decker said some believe that value is conservative due to increasing demand for shellfish and sea plants.
“It’s a matter of putting the pieces in place and everybody rowing in the same direction. That means the state administration, the legislature, the industry and even the public. You must have public support for being able to use public lands on public waters. And so far, we have that for the most part,” Decker said.
Alaska shellfish/seaweed harvesters, processors, nursery or hatchery operators, tribes, community development groups, researchers and cities/boroughs are invited to become full founding AMA members at $75. The dues for associate members, including businesses or non-profits, is $50.