New businesses hope to cash in on Alaska mariculture development

As Gov. Bill Walker prepares to sign a bill enacting the Alaska Mariculture Development Plan, 16 new applicants hope to soon begin growing shellfish and seaweed businesses in just over 417 acres of tideland areas in Alaska.

The new growers would add to the 35 farms and six hatchery/nurseries that already are producing a mix of oysters, clams, mussels and various seaweeds. Eventually, sea cucumbers, scallops, giant geoduck clams and algae for biofuels will be added into the mix.

Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation chart.

Most of the mariculture requests in Alaska are located in Southeast and Southcentral regions and range in size from .02 acres at Halibut Cove to 292 acres for two sites at Craig.

Data from the state Department of Natural Resources show that two farms have applied at Kodiak totaling nearly 37 acres, and one Sitka applicant has plans for a 15 acre plot. Other communities getting into the mariculture act include Seldovia, Port Chatham, Juneau, Naukati, Cordova, Ketchikan and Gustavus.

In 2017, Alaska farms produced 11,456 pounds of clams, 1,678 pounds of mussels, 16,570 pounds of seaweeds and 1.8 million oysters.

Oysters always have been the dominant mariculture crop, and several farmers have added kelp to their acreage. Seaweed takes just three months to grow to harvestable size and can provide a ready cash flow to farmers while they wait for up to three years for their bivalves to ripen. Kelp is poised to be one of Alaska’s biggest crops with one of the biggest payouts.

The first Alaska crop of 15,000 pounds was harvested last year at Kodiak, which yielded a payday of about $10,000 for grower Nick Mangini. This year he tripled his take with 42,000 pounds of two products, brown kelp (alaria) and sugar kelp.

Mangini said 75 percent of the crop was alaria, for which he received 90 cents a pound and 45 cents a pound for the sugar kelp, adding up to more than $33,000.

The kelp is marketed under the name Kodiak Island Sustainable Seaweed and sold to a California company called Blue Evolution.

“We are making it into products that are familiar to North American consumers, so our first items were pastas and macaroni and cheese,” said founder Beau Perry. “It actually deepens the flavor profile. Everyone from moms and dads who are feeding it to their kids to gourmet chefs are responding very positively.”

It’s all a drop in the bucket compared to the real potential for the new industry in Alaska.

“If only three-tenths of a percent of Alaska’s 35,000 miles of coastline was developed for oysters, for example, it could produce 1.3 billion oysters at 50 cents adding up to $650 million a year,” said Julie Decker, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation and head of an 11-member mariculture task force established in 2016 by Gov. Walker through administrative order.

The task force concluded that mariculture crops could yield $1 billion for the state within 30 years.

The governor plans to sign the bill at grower Trevor Sande’s farm near Ketchikan.

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Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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