Alaska mariculture program hands out first round of grants

For the past year, Sea Quester, a seaweed farming company based in Juneau, has been making progress growing kelp. Among its creations is a kelp burger — sales topped 500 at the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines in July.

But its main focus is improving on ways to farm sea kelp for more than just burgers, and scalability is the key.

Sea Quester is one of 15 companies — seven in Southeast — awarded grants totaling more than $1.27 million from the Alaska Mariculture Cluster Joint Innovation Program through the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. The program is designed to accelerate innovation in the mariculture industry by funding research and development projects that address barriers to growth.

It comes at a good time for Sea Quester, which is just starting its second year. “This changes a lot for us,” said Jonny Antoni, founder of the company. “It allows us to test something we think will make it possible to scale up farm production, to make a farmable product or commodity.”

They will use the $98,958 grant to test two ways of growing bull kelp. The first is an array tethered to the surface, and the other, known as a benthic array, is tethered to the seafloor.

“The first is a long line with two anchors, laid down and picked up at the end of the season,” Antoni said.

The other one is much more difficult to put in place, he said. It involves attaching anchors to the ocean floor, a “brutal” dive to plant in November and again to harvest. And the crop has to be monitored in the meantime and part of the grant money will be used for cameras.

“It is our theory that the array on the seafloor will do better because it mimics the tide,” Antoni said.

The grant comes with a sense of relief. “Last year I pretty much funded the whole thing myself,” he said. “This grant makes it so we can become profitable.”

The Mariculture Cluster is part of the work of the Southeast Conference, the winner of $49 million in the federal government’s Build Back Better regional challenge. Its wider mission is to support efforts that promote strong economies in Southeast Alaska.

Juneau-based Barnacle Foods will use its money ($97,635) as it looks for a cost-effective method to dry kelp on a small scale in remote coastal communities that are closest to kelp farm sites. The goal is to break down barriers to the growth of the mariculture industry, particularly in rural and Native communities.

The Ostrea Engineering Project in Juneau ($100,000) seeks to optimize aquatic farm gear to reduce labor and increase oyster growth and yield. A team of engineers, oyster farmers and a biologist will design, fabricate and test Alaska-specific and farm-specific gear. Caging systems will be tested at three existing oyster farms throughout Southeast.

The Pacific Hybreed Project in Juneau ($90,723) will work on a selective breeding program that targets Alaska conditions using controlled genetic crosses and field assessments of oyster seed performance — intended to develop broodstock for oyster farms.

A Ketchikan-based project to evaluate marketability and production for kelp-based wine and spirits will receive $86,050.

Holdfast Robotics & Premium Aquatics, in Craig, received $59,640 to look at innovations in mooring system technology, design and deployment for sea kelp anchoring systems.

OceansAlaska, out of Ketchikan, received $89,650 to work on developing a container-based pre-nursery system for raising the larger oyster seed that grow best in Alaska.


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