Diving into Alaska Aquaculture
An emerging industry provides sustainable food security and economic opportunity
By Amy Newman
National Geographic Image Collection

quaculture is an industry Alaskans are probably familiar with, even if they’re unfamiliar with the term itself.

Broadly, aquaculture refers to the cultivation of numerous species of fish and aquatic plants, such as shellfish, algae, and finfish, as well as enhancement and restoration projects designed to increase wild populations of specific species, says Heather McCarty, vice-chair of the Alaska Mariculture Task Force. Cultivation can be at aquatic farms or, if aimed at restoration and enhancement, hatcheries.

Though the two seem similar, cultivation in hatcheries differs from that done on aquatic farms.

“The enhancement of the salmon—a lot of people call it ocean ranching—you basically grow the organism to a juvenile size and then you release them to the ocean,” McCarty explains. “Farming is where you raise an organism from the very first seed to harvestable size in captivity in one place on a farm. And so it’s like growing wheat or peas or anything else.”

As both a worldwide and statewide industry, aquaculture aims to counter the steady decline in fisheries and ocean populations by using the sea in the same way we farm the land.

“We are near the cap of what we can harvest from wild fisheries and wild populations, but we aren’t near the cap of what we can grow in the ocean,” says Melissa Good, mariculture specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

“Farming is where you raise an organism from the very first seed to harvestable size in captivity in one place on a farm. And so it’s like growing wheat or peas or anything else.”
Heather McCarty, Vice-chair, The Alaska Mariculture Task Force
In Alaska, most aquatic farms focus on oyster and kelp production (farming of finfish is prohibited in Alaska), says Riley Smith, development director for the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

And the state has plans to grow the industry into a viable one that can serve as both a source of revenue and sustainable food.

Development of Aquaculture in Alaska
As an industry in Alaska, aquatic farming, or mariculture, is relatively new. The first fledgling oyster farms developed in the ’70s, with interest in kelp farming kicking in around 2015, says Flip Pryor, aquaculture section chief with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) Division of Commercial Fisheries.

In actual practice, however, aquatic farming in Alaska dates back hundreds of years.

“There has been aquatic farming in Alaska for at least 1,000 years. If you look in Southeast Alaska, there is evidence of clam garden beds going back a very long time. There are traditional practices out there for aquatic farming. It’s not necessarily a new thing to do this in Alaska, but we’re certainly doing it in new ways.”
Melissa Good, Mariculture Specialist, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program
“There has been aquatic farming in Alaska for at least 1,000 years,” Good says. “If you look in Southeast Alaska, there is evidence of clam garden beds going back a very long time. There are traditional practices out there for aquatic farming. It’s not necessarily a new thing to do this in Alaska, but we’re certainly doing it in new ways.”

Although interest in farming seaweed only began in the past decade, it has a long history of wild harvest in Alaska.

“Seaweed actually has been wild harvested for millennia in coastal Alaska, but only in 2014 did it market the first commercial seaweed,” Smith says. “And that really aligns with the mariculture industry.”

Despite Alaska’s history of aquatic farming and wild seaweed harvesting, Alaska’s first official step toward growing mariculture as an industry came in 1988, with the enactment of the Aquatic Farm Act, Pryor says. The Act authorizes the commissioner of ADF&G to issue permits for the construction and operation of aquatic farms and hatcheries, the latter of which provide aquatic plant and shellfish seed stock to farms.

“The intent of the program is to create an industry that contributes to the economy, strengthens the competitiveness of Alaska seafood in the world marketplace, broadens the diversity of products, and provides year-round supplies of premium seafood,” he says.

Although current production focuses on Pacific oysters, blue mussels, and three species of seaweed—sugar, bull, and ribbon kelp—aquatic farms are also approved to cultivate other shellfish, including purple-hinged, rock, pink, and spiny scallops; sea urchins; sea cucumbers; and three-ribbed and giant kelp, according to an aquatic farming FAQ on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website.

Earnest work to promote and grow mariculture as a viable industry only picked up speed in the last decade, with help from federal, state, and nonprofit entities.

As part of its broader goal of growing the US aquaculture industry, NOAA Fisheries has invested significantly in Alaska’s efforts over the past several years, both in terms of funding and developmental support, says Alicia Bishop, Alaska regional aquaculture coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service. A NOAA-funded grant helped the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation kick off the Alaska Mariculture Initiative, aimed at accelerating mariculture development in Alaska. This led to the creation of the Alaska Mariculture Task Force under then-Governor Bill Walker and adoption of the Alaska Mariculture Development plan; NOAA funded the phased economic analysis that informed development of the plan, she adds.

“That plan is really what established a goal of $100 million [in growth] in twenty years in Alaska,” Bishop says. Even in such a short time, the work is resulting in significant gains.

“We are starting to see some pretty significant growth,” she says. “From 2014 to 2018, we’ve had a 50 percent increase from total revenue in shellfish and aquatic plants.”

Increasing Revenue and Creating Jobs
Mariculture can benefit Alaska in numerous ways, Smith says. Aquatic farms increase access to local foods, are compatible with the traditions, customs, and skills of Alaska’s rural communities, help improve local ecosystems, and can expand Alaska’s existing renewable seafood industry.

But its biggest, and perhaps most important, benefit is its potential to create jobs and grow the state’s economy.

“Aquaculture can provide year-round, high-quality jobs and economic opportunities,” Bishop says. “It can help augment our seasonal tourism and commercial fisheries in Alaska, and I think there’s a lot of interest in that potential economic growth.”

The plan looks to grow the mariculture industry to $75 million in sales and 1,100 direct jobs, which would include approximately $38 million in direct wages. Oyster production, which currently accounts for more than 90 percent of all aquatic farm sales, continues to be the primary revenue source under the plan. The goal is to produce 45 million oysters, followed by 1.8 million blue mussels and 500,000 geoduck clams. Kelp production goals include an annual harvest of 19.2 million pounds of wet kelp, or 2.9 million pounds of dry.

Because of the higher start-up costs and the time it takes oysters to reach maturation, the state considers most oyster operations “hobby” or “lifestyle” farms. Though the market is smaller, from a financial standpoint this makes kelp farming an easier initial investment, Pryor says.

Kelp farms in Alaskan waters
Kelp farms are relatively new in Alaska and focus on growing and harvesting sugar, bull, and ribbon kelp.

Melissa Good

“The short growing season provides a quicker turnaround on investment than oysters, which can take several years to reach market size,” he says.

Kelp farming has the added benefit of aligning with the commercial fishing industry on several fronts, which ultimately might make it attractive as a supplemental income source for fishermen and rural communities that already harvest wild seaweed.

“Seaweed growing pairs well with being a salmon fisherman,” Good explains. “Salmon fisheries are during the summer months. If you want to be a seaweed farmer, you plant in the fall, tend during the winter, and harvest in the spring. So, the timeline matches up very well with someone who wants to go salmon fishing.”

Although large companies like Seattle-based Trident Seafoods have recently obtained preliminary approval to open a kelp farm outside Kodiak, most of the interest in Alaska’s mariculture industry comes from “small mom and pop organizations or small tribal organizations that are trying to look for economic revenue for their community,” Good says.

A lot of that also has to do with the transferability of skills from commercial fishing to aquatic farming, particularly kelp farming.

“One of the things that has been really interesting anecdotally, on that employment front, is how fisherman can use their existing skillsets and oftentimes the same equipment and tools to start stepping into aquatic farming,” Bishop says.

From Sea to Market
Increasing the production of shellfish and seafood is only half the battle when it comes to growing Alaska’s mariculture industry. The other half is finding a market for the products or, in the case of seaweed, determining what those products should be.

While oysters have a longer lead time when it comes to market readiness, once they reach maturation, there’s a steady supply of buyers. Trevor Sande, owner of Hump Island Oyster Farm in Ketchikan, says he sells his oysters in a roughly one-third split to the cruise ship industry, seasonal restaurants throughout Southeast Alaska, and New Sagaya and 10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage.

Good says that most Alaska-grown oysters are consumed in-state, though the hope is for out-of-state demand to grow, much as it has for Alaska’s wild seafood.

Seaweed as a source of food in America doesn’t enjoy the same ready market, Smith says.

“In Asia of course, seaweed is fundamental to their market and their food cultures, and it’s just growing in America,” he says. Exploring and identifying alternate markets for seaweed, such as for use in animal feed or fertilizers, and the techniques to process it for those markets, is part of growing the industry.

Workers check an oyster float at Hump Island Oyster Company in Ketchikan
Workers check an oyster float at Hump Island Oyster Company in Ketchikan.

Brittany Slick

But Alaska companies are working to create a food market for kelp products. Barnacle Foods, located in Juneau, supplements its wild harvest with kelp from local farms, says owner Lia Heifetz. This year’s harvest, for example, was about half wild, half farmed. The company’s product line has grown over the past four years to include several flavors of kelp pickles, a variety of salsas, hot sauce, and seasoning. The familiarity of those products to a Western palate is by design.

“Our strategy is to use kelp in foods that are familiar to maybe a typical American consumer,” she says. “We’re continually innovating and working on adding products that can incorporate kelp in a really unique way and that will be familiar and approachable to a lot of different people.”

Future of Aquaculture
One of the biggest indicators of Alaska’s mariculture potential is the “significant increase in applications for aquatic farms,” Smith says. The state received four applications for aquatic farms in 2016, compared to 17 in 2019. “It’s really exciting to see the industry grow in this direction, with the mom and pop companies and the larger investors coming in.”

And as it grows, it may expand opportunities in other ways.

“Another thing the growing farming industry could support is ecotourism, and we are starting to see a tiny bit of ecotourism,” Good says. “The cruise ship industry really wants to see what a working oyster farm looks like.”

“Aquaculture can provide year-round, high-quality jobs and economic opportunities. It can help augment our seasonal tourism and commercial fisheries in Alaska, and I think there’s a lot of interest in that potential economic growth.”
Alicia Bishop, Alaska Regional Aquaculture Coordinator, The National Marine Fisheries Service

Sande turned to ecotourism during the 2019 cruise ship season to supplement his farm’s revenue, which he says roughly breaks even. He purchased a twenty-passenger vessel and several fourteen-passenger vans to transport cruise ship visitors from the dock to the farm and added a tasting room, letting visitors sample the farm’s oysters alongside a glass of wine and kelp products from Barnacle Foods.

Though COVID-19 scuttled his plans this summer, Sande says he believes he can grow a viable business combining ecotourism with the oyster farm.

“The tours showed great promise,” he says. “There’s the potential for $1 million in sales from the tourist component. In the end, we were hoping to have combined revenues in the $2.5 million gross sales range for mariculture and eco-tours.”

As the industry slowly grows, stakeholder sustainability efforts continue. The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation currently has eight open grants dedicated to mariculture, and project teams are working toward completing a variety of objectives, including market assessment, product development, and increasing hatchery capacity, Smith says.

Bishop says that NOAA Fisheries has hired an aquaculture lead at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center who will prioritize and promote marine aquaculture research. Alaska Sea Grant continues to help the industry with research and by supporting education and business planning for those interested in working in the industry, Good says.

That investment, combined with the grit and determination of Alaskans, makes the industry well-suited for Alaska.

“It’s a hard livelihood, you’re working hard, and that’s something that Alaskans really grasp on to,” she says. “Working hard and really being the driver of your own destiny.”