Diverse teams tasked with encouraging Alaska’s ‘blue economy’ entrepreneurs

Alaska lays claim to over half the nation's coastline and a third of the U.S. exclusive economic zone, making it prime real estate for those wanting to get in on the push to develop our oceans. That's requiring new ways of thinking about traditional sectors such as fisheries, tourism, marine trades and oil/gas, as well as providing opportunities for new "blue economy" business ventures.

To encourage a wave of entrepreneurs, a second Ocean Technology Innovation Sprint will task 30 Alaskans this month with finding a problem and creating a prototype solution for a venture of their choice. They will be assigned to five teams and meet one day a week for five weeks before revealing their ideas to the public.

While the meetups are mostly in Anchorage, teams also can connect virtually from anywhere in the state.

"The remote teams are livestreamed to every event and they can work together on a digital whiteboard as if they were in person," said Meg Pritchard, marketing and communications manager for the Alaska Ocean Cluster and OTIS co-organizer. "There was so much interest last year, it has become a huge part of OTIS, because it's meant to bring together people from diverse locations."

The goal of OTIS, which is modeled after a Google Ventures program, is to create an "economic ecosystem" of innovators, educators, mentors and businesses to help grow new products from the bottom up.

Last year's OTIS winner was a Sea Green energy bar made from 20 percent seaweed. Other teams created a bycatch reduction system using net cameras, a tidal generator and one group investigated using machine learning to count salmon.

Pritchard said connections are increasing across the state.

"There is a steadily growing network of people who believe that ocean technology and developing a blue economy is the way to move forward for Alaska's economy," she said.

OTIS is a partnership of the Alaska Ocean Cluster and the University of Alaska/Anchorage Economic Development and Business Enterprise Institute. The Sprint runs from Oct. 20 through Demo Night on Nov. 20.

Ups and downs for pollock and cod

Catches for next year's groundfish fisheries reflect ups and downs for Alaska's key species — pollock and cod — and the stocks appear to be heading north to colder waters.

The bulk of Alaska's fish catches come from waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore with oversight by federal fishery managers. Their advisory arm, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, reviews stock assessments for groundfish each October and sets preliminary catches for the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea and updates them as new data become available.

If the proposed catches get the go ahead in December, the Bering Sea pollock harvest will increase slightly to nearly 1.4 million metric tons, or over 3 billion pounds of pollock.

For Pacific cod, the Bering Sea catch could be reduced to 350 million pounds, a drop of 64 million pounds from this year.

The cod numbers might change due to big differences between the 2017 and 2018 survey results in southeastern and northern waters, where large numbers of fish appear to be migrating. Over the year, the cod biomass dropped 21 percent in the southern region but increased 95 percent in the northern area.

The northern cod are genetically similar to the southern cod, making it unlikely that the fish hail from Russia or the Gulf of Alaska, NOAA research biologist Ingrid Spies said in a recent presentation to the Council.

"What happens to those fish in the north is still an open question," NOAA scientist Grant Thompson told Undercurrent News. "Are they spawning up there? Are they maturing and dying? It's kind of uncharted territory."

The numbers are more straightforward for pollock and cod catches in the Gulf of Alaska and reflect declines for both species. Proposed pollock catches show a 34 percent drop to 228 million pounds, a drop of 118 million pounds from this year. For Gulf cod, next year's catch is likely to be down 5.5 percent to 27.2 million pounds, a decline of 1.6 million pounds.

One of the brightest Gulf of Alaska findings is the continuing upward trend of sablefish (black cod) seen over several years. The preliminary sablefish catch for 2019 was boosted by 40 percent to nearly 36 million pounds.

Winning women videos

Women who mend nets for a living in Vigo, Spain, took home the top prize in the International Association for Women in the Seafood Industry (WSI) video competition.

The contest was launched last year as a way to increase awareness about women's roles in the industry and to recognize their value. This year's contest attracted 15 short videos (limited to four minutes) from around the world.

The winner, "Puntada Invisible," highlights a woman named Beatriz who has been mending nets for 33 years, often outside in all weather.

"I think nobody is aware of how important our work is for the fishing sector, because everyone here looks at the fishing, the skipper, the boat, a good engine, a good engineer. Nobody looks at us here. We are totally invisible," Beatriz said.

The second-prize winner was "Mujeres del Mar del Cortés," a film about women in Santa Cruz, California, who formed a sustainable clam farming cooperative.

Two films tied for third place. "Girls Who Fish in Petty Harbour" is about women in Newfoundland who are mentoring others to run their own fishing operations and gain the experience and knowledge that has traditionally been dominated by men.

"The Invisible Hands" tells the story of Ratna, the wife of a fisherman from the Bay of Bengal in India. Tired of struggling to make ends meet, Ratna partnered with five local women and got a government grant to start a food truck called a "fish nutri cart." The women cook and sell their husband's catches and are so successful that they are applying for a second cart. The women said "their families now have enough to eat and their children are able to go to school."

There was one video entry from Alaska called "Copper River" that showcased the life of veteran Cordova fisherman Thea Thomas.

The judges were delighted with the breadth of the entries, said WSI's president and founder, Marie Christine Monfort.

"A lot of effort is being put into tackling illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing around the world," she told SeafoodSource. "We see WSI's mission as tackling IUU — invisible, ignored, and unrepresented women."

The top video took home 1,000 euros ($1,162), with 500 euros ($581) for second and third places, and will be featured this month at the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries conference in Thailand, at the first women in fisheries international symposium in Spain in November, and at the international film festival of world fisherfolks in France in March 2019.