Offshore fish farms could soon dot the seascape along with those oil and gas platforms being proposed for U.S. waters by the Trump administration.
The fish farms, which would be installed from 3 to 200 miles out, are being touted as a way to boost seafood production, provide jobs and reduce the nation's $16 billion trade deficit due to America's importing nearly 90 percent of its seafood favorites.
The U.S. Commerce Department is holding meetings around the country through November to talk about its strategic plan for getting aquaculture off the ground. At a recent session in Juneau, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver said that wild harvests simply can't keep up with global demand.
"Aquaculture is going to be where the major increases in seafood production occur, whether it happens in foreign countries or in U.S. waters," Oliver said.
"Aquaculture would seem like an ideal industry for the country, since it has the second-largest exclusive enterprise zone in the world — meaning it has proprietary marine resource rights over an area totaling roughly 4.4 million square miles in three oceans, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico," wrote Seafood Source.
However, the U.S. is a bit player in the burgeoning global industry.
In 2015, the U.S. produced just 0.4 percent (426,000 MT) of global aquaculture harvests, putting it in 18th place and trailing such countries as Ecuador, Malaysia and North Korea. In contrast, the U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world in poultry and beef production.
The potential is not lost on America's big food producers.
A new trade group called Stronger America Through Seafood has emerged to promote the push to farm the seas. Its backers include Cargill, Pacific Seafood, Red Lobster, High Liner Foods, Sysco and Seattle Fish Co.
"There is no clear framework for allowing offshore aquaculture development, so while the rest of the world is growing and evolving and exploring the open ocean as an opportunity to farm our own fish, the U.S. continues with business as usual," said spokesperson Margaret Henderson. "And as our population and our appetites increase, we become increasingly dependent on foreign production."
The group has come out in support of a bill pending in the U.S. Senate called Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture Act that would streamline the permitting process for offshore aquaculture projects. The act says it would create an Office of Marine Aquaculture within NOAA and provide a "one-stop shop" for federal approval of fish farm permits and "to the extent practicable," avoid, minimize, or mitigate adverse impacts to the marine environment and wild fisheries.
During the Juneau session, acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Timothy Gallaudet cited climate change in his pitch for the fish farms.
"Some of the changes in the environment are affecting fish stocks," he said. "They are either moving or they're not thriving and so aquaculture, done the right way and scientifically based, provides a means for employment of fishermen who are losing some of their gain through these changing conditions."
Sam Rabung, chief of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's aquaculture section, respectfully disagreed.
"I think it's safe to say that we're going to fight pretty hard to maintain the state's opt-out option," Rabung said, "and maintain the ability to prohibit finfish farming off of Alaska."
It's a mix of good but mostly bad news for Bering Sea crabbers. The results from the summer trawl surveys showed "substantial" drops in numbers of king crab and bairdi Tanners. Conversely, the snow crab stock appears to be on a big rebound.
The news was presented last week in the annual Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation Report for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
For red king crab, at the eastern portion of the Bering Sea more commonly called Bristol Bay, numbers of mature males dropped more than 40 percent from last year; mature females were down 54 percent. Even worse, the survey continued to show no sign of younger red king crab coming into the fishery.
"We haven't seen recruitment in years," said Bob Foy, director of the NOAA Fisheries lab at Kodiak and leader of the council's crab plan team.
In the report the team noted "it feels that the rather unusual environmental conditions in the eastern Bering Sea this year (e.g., elevated bottom temperatures, lack of a cold pool) and the model's poor fit to the 2018 survey data increase the uncertainty associated with this stock and warrant additional precaution."
The red king crab catch last year at Bristol Bay was 6.6 million pounds, a 20 percent drop from 2017.
For Tanner crab, the number of mature females dictates the fate of a fishery and those numbers declined 70 percent in the eastern fishing district, continuing a trend over several years.
The news was better for the west, where male Tanners held steady while females declined 14 percent. Foy also said there was a "substantial amount" of young crab poised to enter that region's Tanner fishery.
"Substantial" also sums up the good news for Bering Sea snow crab. The summer survey showed a 60 percent boost in market sized males and nearly the same for females. The SAFE report said the 2018 survey showed the largest mature male biomass since 1998.
Foy added that the survey "documented one of the largest snow crab recruitment events biologists have ever seen." The snow crab fishery last season produced a 19 million pound catch, the lowest since 2005.
The reaction from fishermen was mostly over "disbelief" in the king crab data, said a veteran Bering Sea crabber and industry advocate who asked not to be named.
"The survey results seem contradictory to what many saw while fishing last year," he added. "Many believe a preseason pot survey would yield a more accurate assessment of biomass. We respect the process and understand the reasons, but the dynamics of the Bering Sea are changing, and stock assessment methods may be less relevant than they once were."
Bristol Bay booms
It's a record-breaking pay day for Bristol Bay salmon fishermen. The preliminary value of the sockeyes and other salmon they hauled in this summer topped $280 million, a first in the history of the fishery, and 242 percent above the 20-year average.
The 2018 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run of 62.3 million fish was the biggest since 1893 and nearly 70 percent above the 20-year average, according to a summary by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It also was the fourth consecutive year that sockeye runs topped 50 million fish.
In terms of catch, a harvest of 41.3 million red salmon was the second largest on record, after the 45.4 million fish taken in 1995.
Symphony of Seafood surprises
The call is out for new Alaska products to compete at the 26th annual Symphony of Seafood in Seattle and Juneau.
"Looking back over the years it is striking how new product development techniques and possibilities have increased seafood investments. It's really heartening because that drives value and prices and continues to keep Alaska seafood relevant to consumers," said Julie Decker, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, host of the event.
The Symphony of Seafood provides a level playing field where new products from small mom-and-pop operations can compete on a level playing field with majors like Trident and Ocean Beauty. Products are judged by an expert panel in four categories: Retail, Food Service, Beyond the Egg (roe products) and Beyond the Plate.
"There are so many things being produced around the state, from kelp beer to pet treats, to things that are not edible … cosmetics, fish skins, things from crab shells — if it has Alaska seafood in it, it's eligible for Beyond the Plate," Decker said.
Symphony goers can see and taste the new products and vote for their favorites during the Pacific Marine Expo (Nov. 18-20), where the top winners will be announced. All others will be kept under wraps until the Symphony again moves to Juneau in February for another bash. That's where second and third place and the grand prize winner will be revealed.
The winning products get more exposure with a free trip and booth space at the big Seafood Expo North America event in Boston in March.
"It's a fun side of the industry where we all come together and celebrate the work that goes into developing these products, and the entire supply chain from when the fish is caught to selling it to customers at grocery stores," Decker said.
Last year's top winner was Alaskan Leader Seafoods for its Wild Caught Cod with Lemon Herb Butter and its Cod Crunchies Pet Treats.
Product entries and sponsors can sign up through Oct. 19 at the Alaska Symphony of Seafood website.