The business of mariculture — the farming of shellfish and aquatic plants such as kelp — is garnering greater interest around Alaska.
Applications for new mariculture farms are up roughly threefold this year (15 applications compared to typically about five), which pencils out to about 1,000 acres of potential new oyster and kelp farms from Kodiak to Sitka to Homer and elsewhere. That would be a big increase, considering Alaska currently has about 320 acres of permitted aquatic farms.
Those who want to see the industry grow say it could provide some much-needed economic diversity for Alaska, and that there's great potential for mariculture to take off because of the existing significance of the seafood industry here.
Last year, Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order establishing the Alaska Mariculture Task Force to look at ways of boosting the industry.
Julie Decker, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, said her group has been focusing more on developing the mariculture industry in the past three to four years.
Part of the reason there's been an uptick in interest this year, she said, is because of the foundation's outreach to people who might want to launch such a business.
In the past, the group hasn't promoted the idea of mariculture as much to seafood producers, for "fears of conflict over the use of space," Decker said. But more recently, her organization has targeted those producers more, seeing them as a group of stakeholders "that could easily move into mariculture." Coastal Alaska communities are another target for outreach.
Trevor Sande's company Marble Seafoods, in Ketchikan, started harvesting oysters in the fall after getting a permit from the state a few years ago. A civil engineer, Sande also owns an engineering firm and wanted to expand into something different.
"You're farming and growing, creating a product out of nothing," he said. "It seemed like it was a good fit for Alaska. Seems like we could take any form of economic growth that we can right now."
The learning curve for oyster farming is steep though, he said, guessing that the mortality rate for his company's oysters was probably about 50 to 75 percent. Marble also harvests kelp, but Sande said the yield was small this year, in part because of winter storms.
In the past month, three new farms in Ketchikan and Kodiak harvested Alaska-grown seaweed for the first time, the state's Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development said in an announcement this week.
In Juneau, a company called Barnacle harvests kelp to make salsa, pickles and seasoning. Co-owner Lia Heifetz said she's noticed consumption of seaweed getting more and more popular.
"It makes sense for existing shellfish farmers to add seaweed onto their production line," she said. "A lot of the same infrastructure can be used, and the relationship between growing seaweed and shellfish is complementary."
Since farming for aquatic plants and shellfish became legal in Alaska in 1988, the industry "has struggled to grow," Walker said in last year's order, "with annual production values through 2013 below $1,000,000."
The vision at the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, Decker said, is to implement a plan that grows that into a $1 billion industry in 30 years.
Though demand for shellfish is growing, developing the mariculture sector isn't without its challenges, said Sam Rabung, chief of the aquaculture section at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He's also on the state's mariculture task force.
"I think we have tremendous potential," he said. "We have more coastline than we can shake a stick at, but we have a lot of logistical challenges."
The biggest, he said, is distance to market, and the fact that many sites for harvest are far from transportation and processing centers.