Work gets started to build up seaweed, shellfish farming industry in Alaska

Organizers are creating programs to start using a $49 million federal grant and $15 million in matching funds to grow Alaska’s shellfish and seaweed farming industry.

The money will go toward a statewide effort, though more permit applications were filed for new or expanded farms in Southeast than in any other region 2016 through 2022, according to state statistics.

Southeast set a record last year with seven applications for seaweed and shellfish farms, Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Fish Game, said at last week’s Southeast Conference summit in Juneau. Those new filings brought to 37 the permit applications in Southeast since 2016.

Elsewhere around the state, 30 applications were filed for new or expanded farms in Southcentral Alaska 2016-2022, and 23 in the Kodiak area.

The Southeast Conference is the leader among the 17 participating organizations in the Alaska Mariculture Cluster, which won the federal grant late last year.

The money will fund several new programs, including a revolving loan fund, equipment for hatcheries and nurseries, marketing assistance and research and development of new products to boost sales.

The project will run through September 2026.

“We’ve got to be creative,” in setting up the loan program for new businesses, said Alana Peterson, executive director of Spruce Root, a participating organization in the Alaska Mariculture Cluster.

Juneau-based Spruce Root, established in 2012 with funding from Sealaska Corp., is dedicated to helping local entrepreneurs with loans, business coaching and workshops.

The Mariculture Cluster will design the loan program for start-ups, taking on more risk than would a traditional bank, Peterson said during a panel discussion at the Southeast Conference summit.

The effort is targeting 25% of its loans to Native-owned operations and 25% to rural communities.

It’s all about growing the industry, creating jobs and income, supporters said. From less than a $2 million business last year, the expectation is that with assistance such as the federal grant and matching partners, the Alaska mariculture industry could expand to between $60 million and $185 million a year by 2032.

There were 13 operating oyster farms in Alaska in 2022, totaling almost $1.5 million in sales.

In 2022, there were eight producing seaweed farms around the state, with 24 more permitted and 23 under permit review, according to a presentation by Dan Lesh, deputy director of the Southeast Conference.

Kelp goes into foods, including salsas and dried snacks, and skin care products.

The first kelp farm in Southeast started operations in 2017. The 2022 harvest totaled almost 300 tons, reported Markos Scheer, the Southeast Conference seafood committee chair and founder of Seagrove Kelp, a wholesale business based north of Seattle.

The federal grant is from the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, run by the Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Alaska application was selected from among 529 nationwide to develop and promote emerging industries.

Sealaska Corp. is among the matching fund donors.

Components of the Alaska Mariculture Cluster include $26 million for equipment and technical help for hatcheries and nurseries, explained Juliana Leggitt, project manager for the initiative. That effort will include developing ideas for expanding the industry to farm new species other than oysters, focusing on shellfish that are commercially viable.

The plan allocates $10.5 million for workforce training, partnering with the University of Alaska system on curriculum, and also developing training manuals for oyster and seaweed farming operations, Leggitt said.

The revolving loan fund would be capitalized with $10 million, proving a source of capital for businesses.

Research and development efforts would be allocated $9.5 million, with work to include, for example, analyzing the more than two dozen species of seaweed in Alaska for nutritional value, said Hannah Wilson, development director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, one of the partners in the mariculture cluster.

Nutritional analysis is an important tool in marketing the products, Wilson said.

Additional work would include using the money to model ocean currents and waves at potential mariculture locations, providing the data to applicants to help select the best sites.

Using a $3.5 million pot for coordination and outreach efforts, the cluster plans to hire four regional coordinators to help with operations and work with local tribes throughout the four-year project, Leggitt said.

Market research and development efforts will get $1.2 million, with $700,000 allocated to look at renewable energy sources for mariculture operations.


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