More Alaskans are planning to become kelp growers based on applications filed during the window   that runs from January through April.

“Seven applications. One of them is for oysters only. And the rest of them are all kelp.”

Flip Pryor is statewide aquaculture section chief at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game which issues the permits. They partner with the Dept. of Natural Resources which leases the lands where aquatic farming takes place.

Four of the kelp growers are from Kodiak, one each from Yakutat and Cordova and the sole oyster applicant is from Sitka. Combined, they hope to farm just under 240 acres of wetlands.

The seven applicants reversed a steady upward trend that reached 16 last year, likely due to a “wait and see” approach due to the pandemic.  Michell Morris is permit coordinator –

“We had people applicants whose personal situations changed because of COVID. You know, they became homeschooling parents, things like that, where they can no longer dedicate the time that they thought they were going to have out on a farm site.”

In 2020 the number of aquatic permits increased by five for 70 farms and nurseries and 5 hatcheries.   Sales of primarily ribbon and sugar kelp doubled, topping 230,000 pounds, while oyster production dropped below a million for the first time since 2016.

Preliminary data show total sales by 29 farmers at $1.09 million with oysters making up 80% of the value.

Most aquatic farms are located in central and Southeast regions but interest has spread to the Alaska Peninsula and further west. Others have expressed interest in growing geoduck clams, abalone and sea cucumbers.

Flip Pryor says small growers fill a niche but it will take bigger operators to scale up the industry’s economic potential.

“The small growers can do things like supply local restaurants or that kind of stuff really well because of very low transport costs compared to shipping stuff down to the Lower 48. But it’s going to take those big farms and the big processors that have money to invest and get something going to bring that volume of product up and make those economies of scale sort of thing happen and provide a constant product. Because people that are buying kelp for biofuels don’t want a boom and bust sort of thing. They want to know that you can count on X number of pounds every single year. And that’s definitely going to take some big operations in the water.”