Alaska mariculture effort wins $49 million federal grant

A statewide coalition of fisheries and economic development organizations, led by the Southeast Conference, has won a $49 million federal grant to help build up Alaska’s mariculture industry.

“This is a moon shot,” Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, said of the challenges ahead and the potential rewards of growing the industry to raise and harvest shellfish and seaweed in larger commercial quantities.

“It’s a big deal,” said Wrangell’s Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, one of the coalition partners.

The Alaska Mariculture Cluster, as the group calls itself, already has $15 million in matching funds and in-kind services to add to the federal grant, Venables said last Friday, listing Sealaska as among the donors.

The group plans to set up a revolving loan fund for shellfish and seaweed production. The federal funding also will go toward job training programs, research and development, marketing, planning and technical support for green energy in the mariculture industry, and equipment and technology to help solve the challenges of building up hatchery and nursery capacity to create shellfish and seaweed seed.

The money will be used to develop “a viable and sustainable mariculture industry producing shellfish and aquatic plants for the long-term benefit of Alaska’s economy, environment and communities,” according to a prepared statement issued by the Southeast Conference, a nonprofit organization of Southeast municipal governments and businesses.

There are several oyster and kelp operations in the state, but their total sales are a fraction of the Alaska Mariculture Cluster’s 20-year target of a $100 million-per-year industry, with 1,500 jobs producing and selling Pacific oysters, geoducks, kelp, blue mussels, red king crab, sea cucumbers and other species.

“We want to use that money to build capacity” to grow, harvest and market shellfish, kelp and other seaweed, Venables said. As an example, he said, the group plans to talk with the state about expanding operations to ensure that the state lab can handle additional shellfish testing for commercial sales.

Several international firms are looking at investing in mariculture in the state, he said. “They will see this (federal grant) as a stimulus.”

The group also plans to work with the University and Alaska Sea Grant network, tribes, vocational education programs and high schools to bolster training programs for jobs in the industry.

More jobs and workforce training may be the first things the public sees from the grant, Decker said. “Hopefully, more people putting gear in the water, applying for sites.” Many of the harvest and seed hatchery jobs will be similar to salmon hatchery work, she said.

Along with the Southeast Conference, coalition members include the state, the Prince William Sound Economic Development District, Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Alaska Mariculture Alliance, University of Alaska, Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

The state budget this year includes a $5 million grant to the Alaska Mariculture Alliance.

Venables credits a state mariculture task force with doing a lot of the homework that eventually led to the successful federal grant application. Then-Gov. Bill Walker created the task force in 2016. The group presented its final report to Gov. Mike Dunleavy in May 2021.

“That body of work really was the bones of putting this together,” Venables said of the federal grant.

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation deserves credit for a lot of the work that went into putting together the program to grow a mariculture industry in the state, Venables said.

The years of work, research and collaboration were important to having a plan ready to go when the federal funding became available, Decker said.

Earlier this year, the Southeast Conference was awarded a $500,000 federal grant to gather additional economic data and assemble its application for the larger grant.

The $49 million grant is one of 21 awarded nationally last Friday through the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge, run by the Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The program awarded funds to regional coalitions representing 24 states.


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