Remote Alaska ideal for shellfish farming

Laine Welch

Mariculture could be the next big job and economic booster for remote Alaska regions, with 33,000 miles of coastline. The Oceans Alaska Marine Science Center at Ketchikan aims to be the state's go-to place for mariculture research and development for farmers wanting to grow oysters, mussels, scallops, seaweeds and pricey geoduck clams.

Armed with a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the center will provide training for small and emerging growers, both on farm sites and at the floating center soon to be anchored at George Inlet.

"There are many different components for those starting out or trying to expand, and people are looking to Oceans Alaska to provide hands-on training, business training, the biological side of it," said David Mitchel, center director. "It is more comprehensive than just a simple apprentice training program where you put people out on a farm."

There are 75 permitted shellfish farms in Alaska, up from 69 in 2009, with 27 making sales so far -- 15 in Southcentral and 12 in Southeast. The main crop is oysters, with sales valued at $417,000 last year. Most of that was produced by the 13 farmers of the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative, with sales of $300,000.

"I could sell all the oysters I could possibly produce and double sales tomorrow with just a couple of phone calls. There is a lack of production throughout the country," said Tom Henderson, Oceans Alaska mariculture director, who also has an oyster farm near Kake.

When the center officially opens its doors next month, he said, it will begin focusing on growing other products right away.

"We will definitely be working with geoducks immediately, and then getting into other things, particularly seaweed," Henderson said.

Seaweed is the second-largest aquaculture industry in the world, second only to freshwater fish. Kelp, for example, is a multibillion-dollar industry in Japan, and Henderson wants to work with the traditional local black seaweed, which he says tastes better than nori, popular in sushi rolls.

Economists believe expanding mariculture just in Southeast Alaska could easily increase the industry's revenues over time, from $7 million to more than $100 million a year. And why not? Australia produces 80 million oysters a year worth $40 million. And New Zealand's government-funded mussel industry went from $15 million to well over $100 million in 20 years.

"We've done a lot of talking about potential species and production and potential this and that -- I think finally we have a way through Oceans Alaska to really develop that potential," Henderson said.

"We'd like the state to get more actively engaged. That would really help," said Dave Mitchel. "They are supportive, but really getting the governor's office or the Department of Commerce or someone with a priority to expand the industry and help the businesses out. It would help if they figured out a way to coordinate all the state organizations."

"The more success we can all show and the more jobs we create will hopefully open up more opportunities and spur more private investment," Mitchel said. "We aim to show that Oceans Alaska and the State of Alaska are open for business."

Cordova ka-ching!

Eyebrows went up when the annual "Fisheries of the United States" report from NOAA showed Cordova among the nation's top ports last year for seafood landings and values. Cordova fish landings of 150 million pounds were an increase of 100 million pounds; the value of the fish topped $84 million, up by more than $50 million from the previous year.

" I though there must have been a typo," said Beth Poole, director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

So what was it that boosted Cordova's bottom line?

"It was a massive, massive season in Prince William Sound last year," Poole said. "The pink salmon return was huge, the seine season was so strong, and the sockeye return was good too. So a lot of fish came through Cordova. It was great for our processors and our fishermen."

Indeed, Prince William Sound produced nearly 70 million pinks last summer, valued at $92 million dockside.

Poole said the fishermen-funded PWS/Copper River marketing association continues to strive toward improving salmon quality in the Sound by providing ice to remote regions.

"We've run an ice barge three years in a row, and it has been very successful," she said. "It's gaining momentum with more participation by processors, tenders and fishermen who all have been really pleased with that program. We've also been working on quality education and getting our local processors to set some standards and try to increase overall quality in Prince William Sound across the board."

Since 2005 fishermen working with the association have paid a 1 percent tax on their catches and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. The funds also go toward marketing and promotions using social media and advertising for reds, kings and cohos. The group also brings writers, chefs and retailers to experience the community and fisheries first hand.

"We recently brought up a group of writers and they experienced Cordova fall at its finest," Poole said with a laugh. "It was crazy weather, hurricane force winds, and they saw how wild and unpredictable the fishery can be."

The take-home message, she said, is that salmon are the "heart" of Cordova and the driver of the community's economy.


Nothing can replace all the lessons learned on deck -- but in today's world of shrinking fishing jobs, that might not be enough. The conclusion of a 10-week online survey by Sea Grant's Marine Advisory Program is that it wouldn't hurt to have some advance training.

In fact, 72 percent of the nearly 200 respondents said they strongly or somewhat agree that a formal training program would make an inexperienced person a better fishermen. The same number agreed they would be interested in hiring someone with a so-called "occupational endorsement" or certificate, similar to ones used in other industries. Most said that a training program would "improve the financial management of their fishing operations."

The main purpose of the survey was to learn if a university-sponsored training program to prepare recruits for fishing jobs would be of value. Some highlights:

• 63 percent of respondents were active fishermen; others were retired from fishing, fishery observers, plant workers and others from related fields. They represented all Alaska regions, with 19 percent from Southeast, 16 percent from Bristol Bay and 10 percent from Kodiak.

• The greatest number-- 72 percent -- used gillnets, followed by longliners at 69 percent.

• 52 percent believe the University of Alaska should offer a formal training program in commercial fisheries; 34 percent said "don't know" and 14 percent said "no." They said training should include safety, navigation and seamanship, seafood handling and quality, followed by vessel maintenance and repair and understanding the regulatory process. Respondents suggested training should last from one to several weeks, and the best months would be January, February, November and December.

Sea Grant marine advisers will use the survey results in designing classes and in analyses for formal training for fishermen. See the results and comments at

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her column appears Sundays in the Daily News. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your website or newsletter, contact