Weed is set to give a big boost to Alaska’s blue economy.
The interest in growing seaweed in Alaska is gaining momentum, and training more farmers is the goal of a program starting next February in Kodiak, Sitka and Ketchikan.
The training is phase two of the 2014 Alaska Mariculture Initiative that aims to grow a $100 million industry in 20 years.
“We’re doing this training because there is immense interest from coastal communities and commercial fishermen,” said Riley Smith, development director with the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which helped spearhead the mariculture push.
The training program is funded by a $288,000 grant by the federal Saltonstall-Kennedy program for two years. Alaska’s first kelp farm permits were issued in 2016 in Kodiak, and now 21 growers have added dulce, nori and sea lettuce to their macroalgae startup menus. The fledgling kelp harvest has gone from 16,000 pounds in 2017 to nearly 90,000 pounds last year, nearly all from Kodiak. Growers were paid 45 cents a pound for sugar kelp and 90 cents for ribbon kelp for crops with a six-month turnover. (Check out the pasta products made from Kodiak kelp at www.blueevolution.com.)
Through 2019, Alaskans have applied for more than 2,000 acres of new or expanding undersea farms, double the footprint from two years ago, according to Cynthia-Pring Ham, aquatic farming coordinator at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which issues the permits. Fish and Game partners with the Department of Natural Resources, which leases the lands where aquatic farming takes place.
“In 2016 the state only received four applications for aquatic farms, and in 2017, 2018 and 2019 they received 16, 17 and 14 applications for a total of 47 in three years,” Smith said. “And it’s important to note that all of these applications were for oysters, seaweed or both.”
“It’s a really good fit with our existing fishery infrastructure,” Sam Rabung, director of the Fish and Game commercial fisheries division, said in a previous conversation. “We have an ocean workforce of fishing communities, vessels, fishermen, processors that in many cases get used in a kind of boom and bust manner. This gives an additional shoulder to a season.”
Rabung, who began researching kelp in Japan in the 1980s and has worked in salmon enhancement and mariculture in Alaska for more than 35 years, called diversification into seaweed farming “the biggest change to the industry I’ve seen in the last five years.”
“I can’t see a single downside to it,” he said. “The giant kelp that we’re focusing on in Alaska right now, the brown algae, provides everything from food to nutritional supplements to feed supplements for animals, to biofuels, soil amendments and everything in between.”
Now it’s time to prime more Alaskans to accelerate seaweed farming around the state.
“The purpose of the training is to provide the tools to Alaskans to start their own farms,” Smith said.
Ten applicants will be accepted for each training region, and combined with online webinars and two-day onsite visits, they will cover a lot of ground — from identifying seaweed species to navigating the permit process to business plans and harvesting techniques.
Information and instruction will be provided by GreenWave, Alaska Sea Grant, the departments of Fish and Game and Natural Resources, Blue Evolution, OceansAlaska, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation and others. The training sessions are free and food and materials are provided, but participants must pay for their own travel and lodging if they live out of town.
The most promising six growers will be selected for two-year mentoring.
“One of the important things we hope to get out of this is more quality applications to DNR. So, the education on site selection and the application process is going to be a huge part of this,” Smith said.
“The way our statutes are written aquatic farming is the lowest priority use of coastal waters,” Rabung said. “When we review a farm permit, we’re looking at its compatibility with existing uses as one of the criteria, such as fisheries. We can’t put farms in places that are traditional seine hook offs or troll drags or dive fisheries or subsistence harvest areas. So we have to do all these reviews and see if we can find ways to reconfigure a footprint or adjust its siting to make sure that things are compatible.”
Applicants also must be aware of navigational hazards and marine mammal haul outs when they are siting their farms. As the fledgling algae industry develops, state planners are encouraging some growers to form clusters to “really get things going.”
“Getting a larger number of farms concentrated around a hub area to get the synergy to create that critical mass and reduce the cost of logistics, transports, and support services that the farms need,” Rabung said. “We need it to become a company, an industry. That’s where the state will see its biggest benefit.”
So far two Alaska processors, Ocean Beauty and Silver Bay Seafoods, are involved in the new industry.
“They need to know there is enough steady volume to make sure it’s worthwhile,” Rabung said.
Smith said the emerging mariculture industry has strong interest and support from Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“I think that the administration sees the potential for providing jobs to Alaska and diversifying economies in coastal communities,” he said.
Seaweed at Sand Point and beyond: Sand Point will be home to Alaska’s farthest-west seaweed startup beginning next year. With an assist by Alaska Sea Grant and the Aleutians East Borough, growers plan to test two kelp species and harvest them in the spring of 2021.
“Our hope is that we can develop an innovative type of farm that can withstand our weather conditions,” said Melissa Good, a Sea Grant agent in Unalaska, speaking to KFSK in Petersburg. “We are living within an extreme environment; they call it the birthplace of the winds for a very good reason. So we need to show that this can be done here.”
“People also are calling from St. Paul and St. George in the Bering Sea,” said Julie Decker, fisheries development foundation executive director. “They want to know what they need to do to get started.”
The global commercial seaweed market is projected to top $22 billion by 2024, with human consumption as the largest segment. Growers in Maine fetch 50 to 60 cents a pound for edible grades; their rock weed crop brings in $20 million a year. Chile estimates a kelp industry would bring in $540 million annually. And Japan’s $2 billion nori industry is one of the world’s most valuable crops.
Seaweed also benefits the planet by absorbing five times more carbon from the atmosphere than land-based plants.