A growing cluster of entrepreneurs is seeding prospects for Alaska's new "blue economy" that's attracting interest from around the world.
Marine technology experts are meeting at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage this week as part of the Oceans '17 conference, and the conversations will continue into October — along with a competition.
It's the first visit to Alaska for the global event hosted by the Marine Technology Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Founded in 1884 by the likes of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, the IEEE declares itself "the world's largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology for the benefit of humanity."
The theme of the free conference Monday through Thursday is "Our Harsh and Fragile Ocean," and it will focus on how modern technology and traditional knowledge can combine to tackle such issues as climate change, increased Arctic vessel traffic, energy extraction and the new blue economy.
"Globally, the oceans are being viewed as the last economic frontier. There is huge potential to develop the oceans in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way and our hope is that Alaska becomes a leader in this blue economy," said Joel Cladouhos, director of Alaska's Ocean Cluster Initiative, a collaboration of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, the College of Fisheries and Oceans Science at UAF and the Global Entrepreneurs Institute at UAA.
The cluster holds Ocean Tuesday video talks at UAA that include several Alaska communities and other countries.
Ocean Clusters are modeled after a concept that began in Iceland in the 1970s that create an "economic ecosystem" to connect "startup" people with a common goal.
"We're all familiar with marine ecosystems, but an economic ecosystem involves innovators and entrepreneurs and educators to create a foundation to grow businesses, innovate new products and grow from the bottom up," Cladouhos explained. "Blue growth" is defined as the application and commercialization of new technologies and innovation to fisheries, marine science and engineering. It is said to be the one of the fastest-growing global sectors and is expected to triple in value to $3 trillion by 2030.
For Alaska, the blue economy includes traditional sectors such as fisheries, oil and gas, mariculture, coastal tourism and transportation, as well as new arenas such as robotics, biofuels, undersea drones, renewable energy and marine biotechnology. Supporters contend such blue ventures for Alaska could boost the state's economy by as much as 50,000 jobs and $3 billion in wages by 2040.
"Alaska holds over half the nation's coastline and a third of the U.S. exclusive economic zone. There is huge potential to develop our oceans in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way," Cladouhos said. "It's time for Alaska to get on board with the blue economy because it has the potential to be bigger than oil and gas."
A presentation on growing Alaska's blue economy is set for 1:30-3 p.m. Thursday and will be streamed via Zoom video.
Following Oceans '17, a first ever Ocean Technology Innovation Sprint (OTIS) will kick off Oct. 7. It's based on the Google Ventures Sprint process that engages interdisciplinary teams to create prototype solutions to problems over five days within a three-week period.
"The Sprint process … has not been tried anywhere else in the world and is an Alaska innovation, very cutting-edge," said Nigel Sharp, global entrepreneur in residence at the Business Enterprise Institute at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Applicants can seek to be in a pool of 30 Alaskans to make up teams that will "go through an "iteration of a product cycle" in one of nine blue growth areas. Top prize is a trip to BlueTech Week in San Diego.
"No experience needed. Just a passion and willingness to share ideas," says the OTIS logo.
"Hopefully it will start a movement that allows Alaska to get a foothold into the global ocean economy and show we are a base for innovation and ideas," Sharp said.
Alaskans can apply to the Sprint at www.otis.blue through Sept. 26.
Fish fine print
Every year vessel owners must renew documentation with the U.S. Coast Guard, providing the boat's name, ownership, tonnage, home port and other criteria. It costs $26 — although some private providers charge three times as much.
Fishing groups are warning that is the case with an online company called U.S. Vessel Documentation.
Fisherman Norm Hughes of Haines received a letter saying he needed to renew his documentation at a website called uscgdocumentation.us, and he paid $150 for a two-year renewal. Then he learned it was a legal scam.
The outfit is sending letters to boat owners across the country, said Steve Ramp, a Coast Guard spokesman in Sitka.
"This company is making themselves look very close to an official letter from the Coast Guard when they're not," Ramp said. "They are not doing anything illegal. They are offering a service to the owners of documented vessels and they are performing that service."
U.S. Vessel Documentation spokesman Zachary Johnson called any mix-ups "regrettable."
"We don't have the same logos. We have a completely unique and trademarked logo. We aren't on a government URL or anything like that," he told KHNS radio in Haines.
Johnson said a disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the company website states that it is a private service, and it also is specified in the terms customers agree to when renewing their registration. He would not say why the company charges three times as much as the Coast Guard or reveal the number of complaints they've received.
"We are actively trying to get the company to change its policies to make it more transparent. These third-party companies are permitted to do this, but the issue we have is they tend to look like they are official Coast Guard website and letters," said Charles Fort, director of consumer protection at the U.S. Boat Owners Association.
The total Bristol Bay sockeye salmon harvest this summer topped 37 million fish, the third largest in 40 years. Sockeye prices averaged $1.02 a pound, up from 76 cents last year. That pushes the preliminary sockeye value to fishermen to $209.8 million, compared to $153.2 million last season.
Laine Welch is a commercial fishing opinion columnist based in Kodiak. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org