Alaska's mariculture industry has passed some milestones and is getting set to head into the weeds.
Aquatic farming was approved by Alaska lawmakers in 1988 and topped $1 million in shellfish sales for the first time in 2014.
"This is the highest sales we've had since the inception of the program, which is pretty exciting," said Cynthia Pring-Ham, director of mariculture for the state Department of Fish and Game, adding that shellfish production increased 27 percent.
That's an average of $7,049 in sales per acre of active farm, which average about 5 acres. Combined production hit 8.3 million oysters and geoducks in 2014, along with 10,000 pounds of blue mussels and littleneck clams.
Pring-Ham added that 73 percent of the sales came from shellfish produced at 56 farms. The remainder come from the state's seven nurseries and two hatcheries, which sell seed to aquatic farmers.
Seventy percent of the shellfish farms are located in Southeast Alaska, with 23 percent in Kachemak Bay near Homer and 7 percent in Prince William Sound.
Several other mariculture milestones also were reached, including an 11 percent increase in jobs, Pring-Ham said.
"Although small, we have about 185 positions working on aquatic farms in Alaska," she said.
Based on the shellfish crops and seed stocks in the water now, Pring-Ham sees more potential. It takes two to four years for oysters to grow to slurping size, depending on water temperatures, and 14.5 million are set to come on line, along with millions of mussels, geoduck clams, littlenecks and, most recently, cockles.
And plans for growing weed in Alaska extends beyond marijuana.
Farmed seaweed, especially kelps, is seeing a surge of interest as Outsiders target Alaska products. Seaweeds, which can be harvested on six- to 12-month rotations, are used in everything from sushi wrappers to biofuels to face creams to frothy heads on beer.
Seaweed growers from Maine and California made business pitches at the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association meeting last fall to convince Alaska farmers to grow seaweeds experimentally, and eventually contract to grow for their companies. Maine's production of primarily rockweed is valued at $20 million annually, according to a 2015 report for the Ocean Sciences National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota.
The report said up to 35 countries are producing 28 million tons of seaweed crops globally, valued at $10 billion. Japan's nori production amounts to $2 billion annually and is one of the world's most valuable crops.
According to the Cape Times, 30,000 seaweed products have been launched in Europe the past four years.
Pring-Ham said partnerships are "blossoming" between Alaska aquatic farmers, entrepreneurs and educators to test the waters on local seaweeds. A two-year Alaska Sea Grant project is underway at Oceans Alaska in Ketchikan that will create kelp hatcheries and provide seeded longlines to farmers to submerge on their acreage.
"It will introduce the entire seaweed farming business to Alaska on a pilot scale and collect growing data," said Julie Decker, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. "And it will connect with buyers."
Applications for aquatic farms are accepted by Fish and Game each year Jan. 1-April 30, and Pring-Ham hopes more Alaskans will join the mariculture movement.
"Alaska has a lot going for it in terms of aquatic farming," she said. "We have clean waters, bountiful coastlines and one of the easiest regulatory processes for getting a permit to operate and utilize state lands in the country. This makes Alaska so appealing for anyone interested in starting this type of business, and we will help people through every step of the process."
Fish on your dish
Eating trends show some big pluses for wild seafood, but Americans are still eating far less fish than they should.
According to international market research firm NPD Group, the top trend going into 2016 is consumers want to know where their foods come from. NPD credits seafood for its improved traceability and move toward local sourcing, which will continue to boost sales.
Good fats also are in. People now know that some fats are healthy, NPD said, such as those found in eggs, avocados and seafood.
Consumers are seeking non-genetically modified foods "in droves," the organization said. Again, that will benefit wild seafood as people are demanding natural foods with fewer additives. Expect people to read labels like never before.
Healthy and light entrees also are expected to grow at a faster rate through 2018, another opportunity for seafood.
Technomic, another top market tracker, lists "trash-to-treasure" fish as its No. 3 seafood trend, as more restaurants serve up bycatch and lesser-known fish to diners.
For decades, more than 60 percent of Americans have eaten seafood while dining out, but market watchers said more are cooking fish at home.
Maybe that will boost consumption, which has stalled in the U.S. at less than 15 pounds per person. A study last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed only one in 10 Americans follow recommendations to eat seafood at last twice a week. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans released on Jan. 7 recommends eating at least 8 ounces of a variety of seafoods with the aim to take in at least 250 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day.
Fishing bits and bites
Hundreds of boats braved harsh winds and high seas to bring home first-of-the-year fish from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Pacific cod starts the year off for fixed gears, meaning longlines, jigs and pots. The Pacific cod price is reportedly around 35 cents a pound, similar to last year.
• A lingcod fishery is underway in the southeast Panhandle;
• Black rockfish is open there, too, and at Kodiak, Chignik and the Alaska Peninsula. That tasty rockfish fetches closer to 45 cents for fishermen.
• Southeast trollers have taken about 30,000 winter kings at $7.23 a pound, according to fish tickets.
• Bering Sea crabbers are tapping away at a 35.5-million-pound snow crab quota, 15 million pounds of Tanners and 6 million pounds of golden king crab along the Aleutians.
• Trawlers targeting pollock, cod, flounders and other groundfish open their season Jan. 20.
• The state Board of Fisheries meets Jan. 12-16 in Fairbanks to take up Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim fish issues. On Sunday, Jan. 17, the joint boards of Fish and Game will meet again to hear more budget-cutting ideas. All board meetings are streamed live on the Web.
• The International Pacific Halibut Commission's annual meeting is Jan. 25-29 in Juneau.
• Alaska Sea Grant's Sixth Young Fishermen's Summit will be in Juneau Jan. 27-29 at the Baranof Hotel.
• The 2016 Alaska Symphony of Seafood are Feb. 10 in Seattle, Feb. 16 in Juneau and Feb. 19 in Anchorage, where all winners will be announced.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Cynthia Pring-Ham worked for the Department of Natural Resources. She works for Fish and Game.