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Alaska’s fledgling mariculture industry expands its reach; former Dunleavy staffer named to fish board

More Alaskans are turning to seaweed farming as the state’s fledgling mariculture industry expands to more regions. Shellfish growers also are finding that an oyster/aquatic plant combo boosts their bottom line.

Sixteen applications were filed for new or expanding aquatic farms from January through April, of which 56% were for growing various kelp, 31% for a combination of Pacific oysters and kelp, and 13% for oysters only.

While 2019 saw the same number of applications as 2018, the underwater acreage increased considerably, said Cynthia Pring-Ham, aquatic farming coordinator at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which issues the farm permits.

“There were about 616 acres that were applied for in 2019 compared to 462 acres in 2018. That’s about a 33% increase,” she said, adding that Fish and Game partners with the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the tidal and submerged lands where aquatic farming takes place.

For the first time, interest came from a westward region beyond Kodiak.

“In 2019 we had our first applications from the Alaska Peninsula, two from Sand Point and for kelp species,” said Pring-Ham. “It’s difficult for bivalves in that area to grow successfully, so maybe that will be a new avenue for people. We are very excited.”

Two Kodiak growers pioneered kelp farming in Alaska by getting the first state permits in 2016. A mixed sugar and ribbon kelp harvest of 16,000 pounds followed in 2017; that jumped to to nearly 90,000 pounds in 2018, valued at $33,000.

Currently in Alaska there are 58 aquatic farms, five hatcheries and seven nurseries operating, with most involved in oyster production at Kachemak Bay, Southeast and Prince William Sound. In 2017, 41 operators produced a crop of nearly 2 million Pacific oysters, valued at $1.53 million.

Pring-Ham said Alaska oyster farmers are finding that fast-growing kelp can boost their bottom lines.

“The major species people are growing can be grown in a very short amount of time. They put them out in the fall and can harvest in the spring. So in four to six months, they can have a product ready for market, which is a lot shorter than for shellfish like our Pacific oysters, which can take two to four years,” she said, adding that aquatic plants also provide opportunities for more people in fishing communities.

The global commercial seaweed market is projected to top $22 billion by 2024, with human consumption as the largest segment.

Besides kelp, 21 of Alaska’s aqua-farmers also have added dulce, nori and sea lettuce to their macroalgae or shellfish menus. Other undersea crops being grown in Alaska include urchins, sea cucumbers, mussels and giant geoduck clams.

Wood named to fish board

Gov. Mike Dunleavy last week named flyfishing enthusiast John Wood of Willow to the state Board of Fisheries.

Wood, who is an attorney and local chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, was a legislative staffer for then-state Sen. Dunleavy from 2012 to 2014 and focused on northern Cook Inlet salmon allocation issues. Wood also has participated in the Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory board, according to a press release.

The timing of the appointment raised eyebrows because the Legislature won’t be able to confirm him until next year, when the regular session resumes. Meanwhile, Wood will be making decisions starting this fall on Cook Inlet regulatory issues when the Board of Fisheries begins its meeting cycle in October.

Shrimp shines in the Panhandle

Southeast Alaska is the state’s biggest producer of America’s No. 1 seafood favorite: shrimp. And much of it is enjoyed right where it’s landed.

Four varieties of shrimp are taken at various times throughout the year by permit holders, with recent catches topping 1.5 million pounds, worth $3 million at the docks.

“We have 19 different areas around Southeast and each has its own appropriate harvest level for sustainability,” said Dave Harris, area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau.

Catching shrimp with beam trawls, in fact, is Southeast’s longest ongoing fishery since 1915.

The trawlers target tiny northern, or pink, shrimp and larger sidestripes, mostly near Petersburg and Wrangell, with recent harvests topping 1 million pounds. Most of the pinks pay out at around 20 cents a pound and are frozen into blocks and currently processed elsewhere; the sidestripes fetch over a dollar a pound from local processors, and customers pay much more buying direct from the boats.

Fewer than 10 boats are participating in the trawl fishery of late; it’s the better known and more lucrative pot fishery for big spot shrimp that is drawing the most interest.

“That’s been getting more popular,” Harris said. “In 2016, 116 fished, the next year it was 157,” adding that 175 of 256 active permits fished the current season for a half-million-pound harvest.

Fishermen have several sales options for spots. They can fetch $5-$7 a pound from processors, $10 at the docks, and boats rigged to freeze the shrimp onboard get even more.

“Guys are catching, hand packing and freezing whole shrimp onboard their boat primarily for the Japanese sushi market,” Harris said. “They can get $10 to $12 for the whole product, which is about twice the weight of the tailed product.”

Fishermen also catch coon stripe shrimp in pots along with the spots, which usually pay out at around $2 a pound.

Shrimp are unique in that they are protandric hermaphrodites, meaning they start out as males and switch to females after reproducing for a year or two. The sex switch can make it a tricky species to manage.

“As part of the overall population dynamics, it doesn’t really matter when you harvest that shrimp — you’re taking away their reproductive potential,” Harris said. ”For a young male, you’re taking them a couple of years before they convert over to female for the rest of their life. That’s a key part of the management which makes it makes it so difficult because it is very easy to over-fish shrimp if you’re not careful.”

It also has been difficult to gauge impacts on the shrimp stocks from personal users. In 2018, new state rules required that personal use fishery permits be issued for the first time.

“We have some information from specific areas that it can be quite significant, equal to or more than the commercial harvest in some cases,” Harris said.

Other shrimp bits: Total U.S. shrimp production in 2016 was 4 million pounds, valued at $10 million. Texas is the largest U.S. shrimp producer at nearly 3 million pounds annually, followed by Alabama and Florida.

The U.S. imported nearly 700,000 metric tons of shrimp in 2018 (1.54 billion pounds), setting a new tonnage record for the third year in a row. India achieved the milestone of becoming the first country to top 500 million pounds of shrimp to the U.S., followed by Indonesia and Ecuador.