Alaska Mariculture Initiative gains momentum

Tom Walker
May 16, 2017
By Tom Walker

Why not Alaska?  That’s a question that Alaska shellfish and seaweed growers are starting to ask themselves.  The $6-billion seafood industry in the state produces more seafood than the rest of the US combined.  Indeed, if Alaska were a country it would be in the top 10 for seafood production, yet almost all of that comes from the wild fishery.

Industry organizers see a lot of potential for mariculture in Alaska. “We are aiming to grow the

current industry from $1 million to $1billion over the next 30 years,” says Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation (AFDF) Executive Director Julie Decker, from her office in Wrangell, Alaska.

“Our organization represents the traditional seafood industry and we focus on research and development,” says Decker.   “So it gives a different look at what mariculture can be.”  AFDF has been leading the Alaska Mariculture Initiative over the last three years. 

“We developed the Initiative and NOAA funded it with a grant,” says Decker.   She explains that what began as a two-year project with a steering committee to contact stakeholders, hold some workshops and come up with a plan, has continued to grow.   “The state manages these resources, so we knew from the beginning we would have to have them on board,” she says.   “We met with the Governor and asked that he consider supporting the initiative.  He was happy that we had a long-term vision to grow the industry and he set up the task force.”

Governor Walker established the Alaska Mariculture Task Force in February 2016, with a directive to present recommendations by March 2018.   While it furthers the profile of the Mariculture Initiative, the governor’s support, unfortunately, didn’t come with a sack full of money.  “Oil revenues for the state are way down,” Decker says.  “It’s actually been useful to get people to the table to plan in a positive, cooperative way, because there isn’t any money.”

Phase1 of the Mariculture Initiative was completed in March 2015.  The “Economic Analysis to Inform the Alaska Mariculture Initiative” is a set of nine case studies, which look at examples of successful mariculture industries around the world, and how they may relate to development in Alaska. 

The salmon and crab industries in Alaska, geoduck in Washington State, mussels in Spain, New Zealand and Prince Edward Island, clam farming in Florida and the First Nations shellfish industry in British Columbia, were all examined.  Key elements of success in each industry were identified and they will be used to inform future phases of the Initiative.

Phase 2 of the Initiative (underway now) is an economic analysis of the Alaska mariculture industry, and Phase 3 will study the potential economic impact of the industry to the state.

Opportunities and challenges

There is a lot of potential.  Alaska has some 35,000 miles of coastline, a well-funded seafood harvesting, processing and distribution system that accesses products from across the state (often in remote locations) and a state-sponsored marketing arm.  “We know how to do seafood,” says Decker.

But the shellfish industry can be described as lackluster. Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that farmed oyster sales in 2015 were 1.7 million Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas), followed by 16,688 pounds of Blue mussels (Mytilus trossulus), a 74-percent increase over 2014, and a small amount of seaweed. 

There are some challenges.  In the cold Alaska waters, oysters mature in three to four years compared to 18 months in warmer locales.  Indeed, it’s too cold for wild spawning.  And there was no Alaska hatchery spawn in 2015.  Eyed larvae to mature in local nurseries, or smaller juvenile seed, were imported from the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.

“We are seeing a move away from the mom-and-pop operation that has been working on a shoestring,” says Decker.  “An engineer who did work on the hatchery in Ketchikan tapped into the government’s revolving loan fund and put in some state-of-the-art equipment four years ago,” says Decker. That grower is just beginning to harvest and Decker says he has the potential to produce almost as much as all the farmers in the state together.

But why call it mariculture?  “Alaska has this unique relationship with the word aquaculture,” Decker explains.  Finfish farming is illegal in the state and the Initiative has taken pains to explain that they are not about to farm fish.  But there is a very successful salmon enhancement program that supports the state’s wild fishery.   Many of the private non-profit hatcheries that do the enhancement belong to what they call ‘aquaculture associations’.”

Decker says the number one challenge will be public acceptance.  “One of our committees is public education and marketing,” Decker points out.   “We have been very careful in how we involve the public in this whole process.”

“There is a lot of excitement around seaweed.  All of a sudden it is really hip, cool, and interesting,” says Decker.   

She says regional aquaculture associations are showing interest in the Initiative. “They are curious as to how they might be able to integrate mariculture into their salmon enhancement program, and some ask if I think mussels might work,” Decker adds. 

Tom Walker

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