Mariculture industry starting to take root in Wrangell

Alaska is seeking to turn mariculture — a form of marine farming that includes oysters and kelp — into a $100 million industry in the next 20 years. With two kelp farm permit holders and an operating oyster farm near town, Wrangell is home to a nascent mariculture industry of its own.

Robert Lemke of Salt Garden Farm has permits for two kelp farms, each three acres, on the Back Channel near Madan Bay and Earl West Cove. Though he’s held the permits since 2020, he hasn’t started a kelp crop yet and is planning to do so this season for the first time. Mechanical problems and the pandemic delayed his start date, but “this year, it seems all the ducks are in line,” he said.

He’s going to begin growing kelp in November and plans to harvest around March or April. Though he doesn’t have a buyer yet, he’s optimistic about the future of mariculture.

“It’s kind of a leap of faith here,” he said. “It’s a developing market for the buyers and also for the growers.”

Seaweed farming is the fastest growing aquaculture sector nationwide and the industry is taking off in Alaska. The state saw a 200% increase in its commercial harvest from 2017 to 2019, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. Kelp is found in a wide variety of products, from cosmetics to toothpaste to foods to pharmaceuticals.

Mariculture, specifically kelp farming, is “a cool industry, it’s a green industry,” Lemke continued. “It takes carbon out of the water. You don’t need to water it, you don’t need to fertilize it, all you need to do is grow it.”

He decided to start his farm after participating in a three-day workshop in Ketchikan that taught would-be kelp farmers how to set up shop.

The state of Alaska has been promoting mariculture by providing funding and educational opportunities for farmers, and by investing in marketing and industry research. The Alaska Mariculture Alliance, for example, is offering existing or new farming operations throughout the state grants of up to $150,000 in 2024.

In addition, the Southeast-based Alaska Mariculture Cluster has $49 million in federal money to use over the next three years to help seaweed farmers and oyster growers start or expand and improve their businesses.

In spring of 2020, outgoing executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation Julie Decker and her husband, Craig, started harvesting wild kelp and selling it to Barnacle Foods in Juneau, where it can be used in Alaska kelp hot sauces and other products. The pair is also moving through the permitting process to establish a kelp farm of their own in the area.

“Wrangell isn’t necessarily the perfect place to (grow kelp), but it’s definitely got some good characteristics,” said Julie Decker. “One of the things you need to be careful about in Wrangell is the fresh water out of the river, the silty water.”

However, the presence of maritime infrastructure, experienced fishermen and a cold storage facility in the community offset the environmental issues and make it an attractive site for mariculture.

“There are some things that we could build off of, there’s more of that activity that can happen,” she said. “It’s a bit of a pioneering thing. All the answers aren’t necessarily in front of you. You have to do a bit of figuring it out.”

The Deckers have learned that bull kelp thrives in areas with strong currents, so they’ve identified a new site for their farm and are revising their permits.

Getting permits to start a kelp farm requires a public process and approval from the borough, the Department of Fish and Game and other governmental entities.


Reader Comments(0)

Rendered 06/23/2024 16:21