Alaska Trends


hile farming fish has been illegal in Alaska waters since 1990, that doesn’t mean the state is devoid of mariculture activities. Hatcheries are tolerated because juveniles are released to the wild. Mollusks are fully exempt from the ban, allowing small-scale farmers to raise Pacific oysters and blue mussels. Sugar kelp, known as “kombu” in Japanese cuisine, is also grown commercially. So while some Alaskans already make their living by tending to aquatic organisms, there could be more.

Ocean development agencies and organizations set a goal in 2016 to boost Alaska mariculture into a $100 million industry by 2036. By comparison, terrestrial farming of hay, potatoes, flowers, and other produce is worth between $40 million and $50 million. Inventing a larger industry from nothing might seem impossibly ambitious—except in light of the state’s largest cash crop, cannabis, which rakes in $100 million worth of sales less than a decade after legalization.

Research is ongoing into potential farming of sea cucumber, geoduck clams, blue king crab, and red king crab (the latter two species firmly established as a wild-caught market). The US Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are helping to drive the development, partly by laying out a five-year strategic plan.

To track progress, NOAA and its partners released the Aquaculture Accomplishments Report for fiscal year 2023. This edition of Alaska Trends dips into those murky waters and scoops up a bounty of plans and projects.

By the way, one tidbit that takes more explanation than a simple infographic is the role of SMURFs. No, not the tiny blue cartoon characters; SMURFs are standard monitoring units for the recruitment of fish, a collection tool in the form of a mesh cylinder anchored in a marine habitat. By counting juvenile fish that shelter inside the SMURF, researchers compare animal abundance and diversity between farms and natural settings. Smurftastic!

Simple vector image illustrating the ten different areas and equipment used in mariculture outlined in the article list
2023 Projects
1 Selective breeding of hatchery oysters
Resolve barriers to locally producing seed larvae of Pacific oyster.
2 Determine aquaculture’s environmental effects
Divers count animals at Southcentral kelp and oyster farms, and designers work on underwater instrument moorings.
3 Redesign classroom aquaculture units
“Tumble culture” kit for red ribbon algae, used in Klukwan, made compact and quieter for Juneau.
4 Monitor harmful algal blooms
Validated SeaTox ELISA kits to test for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
5 Assess habitat provisioning of kelp farms
Compare farmed versus natural kelp beds as habitat via GoPro cameras and environmental DNA sampling.
6 Assess 100 years of kelp canopy change
Analyzed 1913 and 2004 surveys to find increased kelp coverage in the Gulf of Alaska.
7 Potential for pinto abalone farming
Study preferred foods, energetic demands, and growth rates of pinto abalone.
8 Develop marine spatial analysis data portfolio
Partner with National Centers for Coastal and Ocean Science to lay the groundwork for site suitability analysis.
9 Update ESA Section 7 consultation template
Develop a checklist to ensure that Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultations reference aquaculture mitigation measures.
Develop interagency working group
Coordinate among NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region, US Army Corps of Engineers, and Alaska Departments of Fish and Game and Natural Resources for AOA siting.
Develop aquaculture research database
Collated all research products from 1986 to 2022, compiling it in one place for the first time.
Develop FY23 action plan priorities
Updated Five-Year Joint Aquaculture Action Plan to prioritize projects.
10 Advance aquaculture communication
Published a article about the Alaska Mariculture Cluster and presented at Alaska STEAM conference.
Launch AOA communications
Rolled out presentations and press coverage to engage with AOA stakeholders.