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Laine Welch: Kelp farming is cropping up as a new industry

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 1, 2015

Sea farmers can grow lots more than fish and oysters. Growing less labor-intensive underwater ocean veggies is an exploding market around the world, especially for products made from kelp. Globally, kelp drives a $5 billion industry. Some examples:

Ocean Approved of Maine, which claims to be America's first and only commercial kelp farm, launched a line of kelp cubes this month at the Boston Seafood Show. The cubes are aimed at the popular smoothie market, which has expanded the use of the green veggie in its juices. The company also sells kelp "sea slaw," "sea rounds" and "wraps." Ocean Approved began in 2009 and has been seeded with a half million dollars in grants from NOAA Fisheries and the Maine Technology Institute. The company produces 33,000 pounds per acre on five acres annually and business has increased 400 percent in two years, according to the Casco Times.

Kelp also is the latest crop that Canada's fish farmers are cashing in on. The country's largest salmon grower, Cooke Aquaculture, recently debuted its own brand of certified organically winged and sugar kelp. It can be cooked or served up fresh, and is sold under Cooke's True North brand.

Chile also is getting into the kelp mix. Based on a 2013 economic study, Chile estimates a kelp industry in its northern fish farming region would bring in $540 million annually in U.S. dollars.

The growing interest in and uses for kelp are not lost on Alaska, where a Mariculture Initiative is building support for expansion, notably in Western Alaska. Currently, there are 31 sea farms operating in Alaska; five are growing kelp along with oysters and other shellfish.

Volunteers for safety

Volunteers are needed to help craft new safety rules that are being written for older boats -- which includes the bulk of Alaska's fishing vessels.

Called the Alternate Compliance Safety Program (ACSP), it is part of the 2010 U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act and is aimed at vessels that will be 25 years old by 2020, are greater than 50 feet in length and operate beyond three nautical miles.

The program will include most of Alaska's fishing fleet -- a 2014 maritime study by the Juneau-based McDowell Group shows that the majority of Alaska's boats were built between 1970 and 1989.

"The requirements won't become mandatory until Jan. 1 of 2020 for most vessels. However, the Coast Guard needs to prescribe the program by Jan. 1 of 2017," said Troy Rentz, alternate safety compliance coordinator for the U.S. Coast Guard 13th District.

Right now, safety teams are compiling data on losses from fishing fatalities, injuries and vessel sinkings, Rentz said, and from that they will evaluate the risks based on the various regions and fisheries.

"That is going to have a big influence on these programs because we know that each fishery has different gear and risks in different operating environments specific to what they are doing," Rentz said.

And that's where vessel volunteers come in.

"We're looking for volunteer vessels where we could get on board and talk about what their best practices are for preventing casualties from collisions or falls overboard, for instance," Rentz said. "We have some pretty good ideas, and we want to talk with vessel owners about things that have been recommended and see if it's something that would be effective for their particular fishery and operating area."

In fact, a congressional requirement of the new safety compliance program, Rentz said, is that it be developed in cooperation with the industry.

"We want people to feel like this is their program, not the Coast Guard's program. It is a cooperative program that is specific to what they are doing and their operations."

Between now and early 2016, safety planners will be meeting with regional work groups and fishing stakeholders to decide what the actual compliance requirements will be. Then they are set to be written up and in place by 2017, giving fishing operators three years to comply.

Other safety compliance deadlines are happening faster. By Oct. 15 of this year, mandatory dockside vessel exams take effect. The requirement for survival craft that remove all parts of the body from the water has been extended to Feb. 16, 2016.

Troy Rentz will be going over the Alternative Safety Compliance Program during ComFish, Thursday through Saturday in Kodiak. Reach him at troy.rentz@uscg.mil or visit fishsafewest.info.

Fish watch

- Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan has selected fellow Ohioan Erik Elam as his fisheries advisor. Elam is a former legislative aide for Rep. Don Young. In an email message, Sullivan said Elam is the staff director for the Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife Subcommittee. Additionally, he'll focus on energy, federal lands, fisheries, the Coast Guard and oceans.

- More millions were cut last week from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game budget by a Senate finance committee chaired by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla. The additional $2.1 million cut brings Fish and Game reductions to $15 million.

Juneau Resources Weekly reports that commercial fisheries are set to take the biggest hit at $815,000. A half million dollars of that sum comes from compliance efforts for the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Sport Fish Division is set to lose more than $500,000; a dozen habitat conservation projects are set to be slashed, along with one habitat biologist. A $240,000 allotment for the state's sport fishing enhancement and hatchery program is also on the cutting room floor.

- Trollers wrapped up their winter king salmon season last week, the earliest closure ever. The fishery opened in October and continues until the fleet catches up to 47,000 kings or until the end of April, whichever comes first. Participation was above average this winter, with 396 permits fished. The average price per pound dropped to $8.73 in the final weeks, after topping $10 for much of the season.

- "Slow but steady" sums up the wrap of Alaska's first herring fishery at Sitka Sound. The week-long fishery yielded close to 8,700 tons of roe-rich herring, down by half from last year. Fewer than half of the Sound's 48 permit holders participated, instead opting for a cooperative fishery where boats split up the quota and each boat fished for a set amount.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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