Blue Acres Is the Place to Be
Growing mariculture in Alaska
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

ermit requests for aquatic farms in Alaska are the highest they’ve been for seventeen years, another uptick in the growing interest in the mariculture industry. While oysters continue to dominate, most of the growth is coming through the development of seaweed farms.

“The mariculture industry will provide long-term jobs and opportunities for Alaskans, an independent food source for Alaska, and exports for our economy,” says Governor Mike Dunleavy. “Mariculture development will bolster the economies in coastal communities where much of the seafood infrastructure and experience already exist.”

There were twenty new joint agency aquatic farm applications submitted during the 2022 application period, which closed at the end of April. Of these, sixteen were for seaweed farms, two for shellfish farms, and two were for combination farms. The farms total 7,645 acres of potential new mariculture development.

Each farm, if approved, is another step toward the state’s goal of growing mariculture into a $100 million industry by 2038. Oysters and seaweed are expected to account for more than 60 percent of that annual revenue, with sea cucumbers, king crab, geoduck clams, and mussels making up the difference.

Though wild kelp and shellfish harvests have been part of Alaska tradition for thousands of years, aquatic farming in the state is younger than Pokémon Go. The first commercial kelp harvest occurred in Kodiak in 2017.

“Because it is at this kind of beginning stage, a lot of folks are coming together and wanting to work together,” says Melissa Good, a mariculture specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program at UAF.

“Rather than having silos of effort, we’re starting to see coordinated research efforts, coordinated training efforts. This way we can move the state forward together,” she says.

Pushing Through Permitting
Farming fish has been illegal in Alaska since 1990–ranching, where fish are released from hatcheries, is allowed—yet the state government is actively engaged in promoting mariculture of any other aquatic resources. Dunleavy, the Alaska Development Team, and the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development have been working together with the mariculture industry for three and half years to reduce the amount of time it takes for farmers to receive a permit, a spokesperson for the governor’s office says.

The Alaska Mariculture Task Force’s final report to the governor in 2021 notes that despite state budget cuts, the Department of Natural Resources reduced the average aquatic farm lease processing time by more than half, from 572 days in 2018 to 274 days in 2021.

An aquatic farm permit requires prospects to submit a joint application to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, which provides the tideland lease, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which reviews the gear a farmer will use, the species they want to work with, and other aspects of the business development plan.

“The state is very attuned to working with the industry. Alaska Fish and Game has been responsive to understanding the limitations of their existing processes, while working with the university to develop research that informs improvements to the permitting process,” says Justin Sternberg, the director for the Alaska Blue Economy Center at UAF.

At the federal level, farmers need a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers to use leased land. There is also a consultation period with other federal agencies to review whether the proposed farm will have a negative impact on marine mammals or essential habitats.

“Additionally, there could potentially be local government permits that you need. There’s not one in Kodiak, though there’s one in Juneau,” Good notes.

While the multi-agency permitting process for the mariculture industry poses a barrier to entry for some farmers, the Alaska Legislature enacted House Bill 115 last year to help streamline some of the bureaucracy.

The law expedites the lease renewal process, lowering the risk of investment for farmers and reducing the workload on the state. Additionally, it opens the door for tourism at aquatic farms without additional fees.

To help navigate the complexities of permitting, the Alaska Sea Grant, working with NOAA Fisheries, developed the Alaska aquaculture permitting portal. Alaska Sea Grant also hosts open Q&A sessions with applicants and permitting agencies. The first event this year drew a crowd of about thirty people.

In feedback from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Alaska Sea Grant team learned that, in general, the quality of applications this year was much higher than in the past.

“We’re hoping that’s attributed to all of this work that we’ve done and getting the resources out there,” Good says.

Oysters Are Her World
Despite streamlining, the permit process can still be arduous, especially for shellfish, says Meta Mesdag, who runs Salty Lady Seafood Co., a family-operated oyster farm in Juneau.

Mesdag explains that getting a lease can take years if applicants must appeal the Department of Natural Resource’s decision, and then it can take at least another two or three years before a farmer has a market-ready product.

The long lead time and significant equipment investment for oyster farming remain huge hurdles to farmers interested in breaking into the industry. However, the well-established market means that, if they can produce high-quality products, there will be buyers.

“We took a lot of risks,” Mesdag says, explaining that her family had to use their home as collateral for loans to get the farm up and running.

But Mesdag was confident that, with 1.5 million tourists a year and 30,000 locals who pride themselves in supporting small businesses, Alaska’s capital city could support a boutique oyster farm.

“The more aware people become of our business, the more excited they are about what we’re doing,” Mesdag says. “It’s been a lot of work, and, yeah, it’s working.”

Salty Lady’s ability to turn seed into a mature product in two to three years is considered fairly quick for the industry. The family accomplishes this by tapping into the strong market for smaller, boutique oysters. However, to get shells hard enough for shucking, they must provide labor-intensive handling that is difficult to maintain on a large farm. Mesdag’s farm, only 1 acre, is one of the smallest in the state.

In addition to permitting requirements, shellfish farms must also follow federally mandated product safety guidelines and testing, which the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation oversees.

“The state and the industry need to know that the product is safe,” Mesdag says. “A very important part of shellfish farming is making sure that your product is safe for consumption.”

Mesdag does this, in part, by partnering with university students interested in mariculture. “We work with students to do water monitoring so that we can study the algae in our cove,” she says.

While the students get hands-on experience conducting mariculture research and writing grants, Salty Lady gets access to vital information. “We know if we are about to have a harmful algal bloom. Then we can pause sales and let the bloom pass,” Mesdag says. “It’s a good partnership for us.”

Dangerous algae blooms are one of the most important fields of research for the Alaska mariculture industry, says Schery Umanzor, an assistant professor at the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “It’s a very challenging topic because we don’t understand the dynamics very well,” Umanzor says.

In a broad sense, researchers know that water temperature, light, and the amount of nutrients in the water are all important factors. However, identifying the exact tipping point when the combination of factors crosses a threshold and results in a harmful bloom is tricky, Umanzor says.

“Both industry and academia have to work together to really make progress,” she says. “As far as academia, I will say that we are good listeners and problem solvers,” Umanzor adds. “And it is great because then industry brings the problems and then we can conduct research and make progress so much easier.”

“The state is very attuned to working with the industry. Alaska Fish and Game has been responsive to understanding the limitations of their existing processes, while working with the university to develop research that informs improvements to the permitting process.”
Justin Sternberg
Alaska Blue Economy Center
Seaweeds in the Deep
Seaweed farming presents a tremendous economic opportunity for rural Alaska communities. Sternberg explains that seaweed farming has the advantage, compared to shellfish, of starting cash flow within the first year.

The drawback is that market demand for seaweed products is relatively limited, which means that farmers entering the industry are counting on growth in existing products, as well as emerging markets. The other major hurdle is processing.

“One of the bottlenecks that has been widely recognized across the nation is processing capabilities for kelp,” says Good.

Alaska Sea Grant is helping tackle the bottleneck by providing resources and training to Alaska aqua farmers. In April, the organization hosted a three-day, hands-on seaweed processing workshop in Kodiak. The seventeen participants learned how to process seaweed, what contamination to look for, and how to test the product to ensure it’s shelf-stable and safe to consume.

Hannah Wilson, the development director at the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, sees a catch-22 in the seaweed market.

“It’s really trying to strike that balance where people aren’t growing all this seaweed and then don’t have anywhere to sell it… but not over-investing in infrastructure like processing plants before we have enough seaweed to process or markets to sell it to,” she explains.

While Alaska is one of the largest producers of offshore seaweed in North America, the United States imports about 98 percent of all seaweed from Japan, South Korea, and China.

“Alaska has the potential for being one of the largest, if not the largest, seaweed producer in the world,” Sternberg says.

One advantage that Alaska has is supply chain transparency, which does not exist from many international sources, he explains. “You could be getting seaweed from a relatively clean area, or you could be getting it from the coast of Fukushima [site of the 2011 nuclear disaster],” Sternberg says.

Most farmed seaweed grown in the United States is for human consumption, but Sternberg says there are substantial markets, mostly untapped, for animal feed, fertilizer, biofuels, and bioplastics. “But the value chain for them hasn’t been established yet,” Sternberg says, before noting that seaweed could end up as a premier carbon credit. “Seaweed is a carbon-negative food that sequesters carbon in the oceans, which deacidifies the water and improves the ocean’s chemistry, an important ecosystem service for the climate at large,” he says.

Not only does Sternberg see the environmental advantages of growing Alaska’s seaweed farms, but he sees it as a way to bring more economic stability to remote communities. “Seaweed is a very sustainable industry, and it has the potential to create jobs for rural coastal Alaska that are good for the environment,” Sternberg says. “This is a real opportunity for those communities to become more self-sufficient and economically robust.”