Alutiiq Pride
Marine Institute
Science and industry in Seward
By Nancy Erickson

Birds Eye Photography


eward’s Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute quietly celebrated its 30th anniversary recently, but many residents and even some in the industry are unaware of the pioneering work the shellfish hatchery and mariculture research center has conducted.

Built by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from criminal settlement funds resulting from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Mariculture Technical Center opened in 1992 with the primary purpose of producing oysters and clams for aquatic farmers.

The institute was initially operated by the Qutekcak Native Tribe of Seward, and it became the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in 2002, recently rebranding as the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute (APMI).

APMI is a division of Chugach Regional Resources Commission (CRRC), an intertribal consortium of seven Alaska Native tribes in the Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet region: village councils in Tatitlek, Eyak (Cordova), Port Graham, Nanwalek, Chenega, the Qutekcak Native Tribe, and the Valdez Native Tribe. CRRC was organized in 1984 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1990.

The seven villages’ strong cultural ties and rich understanding of natural resources and marine systems on the waters and lands of this region give CRRC access to a deep knowledge base generally not readily accessible to other aquaculture facilities.

Making Strides with Shellfish

Located on the corner of Railway Avenue and Lowell Point Road in Seward, a walk through APMI’s doors reveals a lot more than researchers propagating shellfish for aquatic farmers.

“We do much more now than just hatch oysters,” says Jeff Hetrick, mariculture director. “We’ve raised geoducks, clams, oysters, littleneck clams, butter clams, cockles, abalone, red king crab, blue king crab, rock scallops, and sea cucumbers, to name a few. We’ve also cared for salmon, halibut, herring, and octopus for research projects.

“Farmers are still developing their markets, but most [seaweed] is destined as fertilizer until additional infrastructure is developed in Alaska to make other products such as dried kelp, extracts, food binders, and pharmaceuticals.”
Michael Mahmood, Production Manager, Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute
“We provide juvenile shellfish seed and kelp string with partners statewide,” Hetrick adds. “We’re presently raising abalone and sea cucumbers for Southeast projects and clams for our communities’ enhancement projects. All our research is applicable statewide.”

The main room contains the algae lab, where flasks under grow lights produce food for the hatchery’s inhabitants.

Beyond huge round tanks in the main room are smaller containers housing baby soft shelled clams. When they grow to about one-quarter inch, they are re-seeded to beaches near Seward. Smaller tanks also contain littleneck clams and butter clams for Chenega.

Researcher Annette Jarosz is working on a clam habitat suitability study to determine what beaches are more suitable for seeding.

This spool will soon be covered with kelp and ready for outplanting in approximately six to eight weeks.

Southern Dippers Production

This spool will soon be covered with kelp and ready for outplanting in approximately six to eight weeks.

Southern Dippers Production

a spool in preparation for outplanting
APMI Science Director Maile Branson explains, “We have various tanks of different depths to see how [clams] best dig, how rapidly they dig, and what their survival is in different kinds of sand.”

The next tank’s side walls are covered with abalone. Southeast Alaska has a small fishery for the species, which has been declining, Branson says. APMI received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to experiment with abalone culture techniques with the goal of restoring the fishery.

“They’re really interesting and super responsive,” Branson adds. “The way we get them off the side of the tank is to put a starfish in there. They can sense it and all head for the hills.”

Sea cucumbers at APMI aren’t immobile as their name implies.

“They’re kind of funny,” says Branson. “Sometimes they pick their heads up and do funny things like wave it around.” The project involves spawning the sea animals for aquaculture development research in Southeast Alaska and Washington, Hetrick adds.

Keeping Oceans Healthy
APMI began looking at ocean acidification through its Chugach Regional Ocean Monitoring Program (CROM) about ten years ago as part of a network on the West Coast and now worldwide, says researcher Jacqueline Ramsay. Her Ocean Acidification lab within CROM measures carbon dioxide, salinity, and temperature at Resurrection Bay to provide long term climate data showing seasonal and annual variations and trends. Also, partners around the state send water samples to APMI to measure acidification levels.

“It’s the first and longest running near-shore data set for carbonate chemistry monitoring in the state of Alaska,” says Ramsay.

Monitoring expanded in 2015 when APMI began sending field kits to member tribes for weekly water sample collections. Sampling has also been extended to King Cove, Little Diomede, Kotzebue, Nome, and Utqiaġvik.

Another part of CROM detects harmful algae blooms and paralytic shellfish poisoning. Planktonic algae can produce toxins harmful to people, animals, and surrounding ecosystems. These toxins can cause severe health problems when ingested and can be fatal. The APMI website provides real-time data to the public to help best determine the risk level for recreational and subsistence harvest of shellfish and other marine organisms.

While CRRC’s focus is to serve its seven member tribes, the general public also benefits.

“Our research and monitoring programs are key to understanding the basic ecological health of the region,” says Hetrick.

“The public benefits from our work because we are re-establishing localized clam populations and increasing our understanding of shellfish life histories throughout Alaska,” Hetrick says. “We also provide comprehensive data on ocean waters and are developing a lab to ensure our shellfish are safe to eat,” adds Ramsay.

Kelp Is on the Way
Kelp farming is gaining in popularity among regional fishermen looking for opportunities during their off-season and tribes interested in providing economic opportunity during winter months.

The United States grows a miniscule percentage of the world’s $6 billion seaweed market, but Alaska has the capability of growing into a major contributor, according to the Alaska Seaweed Market Assessment.

Eight seaweed farms are currently active in Alaska, sixteen are authorized but not active, and twenty-three are in the permitting pipeline, according to the report compiled by McKinley Research Group for the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. Farms are located in the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, Southeast, and Southcentral.

APMI is assisting farmers with startup logistics by growing “starts” to set up their ocean-based farms—experimenting with sugar, ribbon, and bull kelp.

Kelp is extremely versatile and used in food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and biofuel, according to Branson.

“Kelp is also highly productive and sequesters large concentrations of carbon, counteracting localized ocean acidification,” she adds. “Therefore, in a regenerative ocean farming system, kelp can benefit both the farmer and numerous marine species.”

Don’t expect APMI’s kelp nursery to be lined with pots under lights containing little green sprouts.

A kelp garden consists of 2-by-15-inch plastic pipe wrapped with 200 feet of nylon twine and inoculated with kelp spore solution. The string is controlled with temperature and light until the kelp (not a plant but a colony of single-celled algae) germinates and is ready for shipment to farmers or test sites at approximately six weeks. APMI is currently working with nine farms/test sites near Cordova, Chenega, and Tatitlek.

“It takes a lot of time and care to tend to the seed string for a couple months, but it is very rewarding to see kelp grow on the string,” says Michael Mahmood, APMI production manager.

When ready, spools are taken to farms or test sites and unraveled onto grow lines suspended between buoys approximately 7 feet below the surface and monitored for six to seven months until harvest in the spring.

“The kelp grows very rapidly and will reach lengths up to 10 feet in April when it will be harvested,” Hetrick says. “The test harvest last year yielded about five pounds per foot of grow-out line,” he adds.

Alaska’s first crop of sugar and ribbon kelp was harvested in Kodiak in 2018, and production since then has totaled 743,000 pounds, according to the assessment report. Nearly all the harvest was sold to California-based Blue Evolution, which produces frozen, dried, and pureed kelp.

Two private farmers in Prince William Sound and one in Kachemak Bay have used APMI’s kelp string to propagate their farms. Hetrick says APMI expects to be a major producer of kelp string in Southcentral Alaska.

There are currently eleven seaweed farms in the permitting process in Prince William Sound, encompassing 307 acres. CRRC is exploring developing its own farms near Tatitlek, Chenega, Port Graham, and Nanwalek on behalf of member tribes.

More than 2,000 acres are currently involved in Alaska seaweed farming, according to the report.

“Farmers are still developing their markets, but most of it is destined as fertilizer until additional infrastructure is developed in Alaska to make other products such as dried kelp, extracts, food binders, and pharmaceuticals,” says Mahmood.

Employees from APMI and the Native Conservancy collect bull kelp on Chenega Heritage’s M/V OMC from the surface in western Prince William Sound for hatchery cultivation.

Birds Eye Photography

Employees from APMI and the Native Conservancy collect bull kelp on Chenega Heritage’s M/V OMC from the surface in western Prince William Sound for hatchery cultivation.

Birds Eye Photography

employees from APMI and the Native Conservancy collect bull kelp on Chenega Heritage's M/V OMC
Sights on the Future
Alaska’s mariculture industry is growing and is ripe for expansion and investment.

The State of Alaska and Kenai Peninsula Borough adopted plans to support development of the industry, and the Division of Economic Development created a Mariculture Revolving Loan Fund providing loans of $100,000 per year up to $300,000 to fledgling businesses, according to a CRRC statement.

And as for APMI, Hetrick says, “We see ourselves continuing to be a leader in shellfish research in Alaska and North America, not only with hatchery technology but in clam enhancement and restoration.”

APMI has doubled its staff in Seward over the past year and will continue to grow as new opportunities and challenges arise with the expansion of mariculture in the state and changing ocean conditions.

APMI is proposing to expand its fully integrated Mariculture Technical Center and Mariculture Production Center which, if funded, would approximately double the size of its physical infrastructure while quadrupling the services that staff can provide to tribal members and partner organizations.

“We’ve always had support from our CRRC board to continue working on prevailing issues in the mariculture and ocean research industries but are plagued by lack of space,” says Hetrick. “This proposed facility expansion will be a unified campus of approximately 20,720 square feet of facilities, storage, and yard space. The new facility will also provide sufficient space for our ocean monitoring and mariculture programs as well as accommodate repairs, maintenance, fabrication, and storage of equipment.”

The expansion will add education, cultural, training, office, and lab space to provide the necessary capacity for not only CRRC and APMI but other businesses, Alaska Native organizations, and tribes in the region to recover and build resilience for the future.