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Turning Alaska crab shells into a business fortune

Alaska crab shells are fueling an eco-revolution that will drive new income streams for fabrics, pharmaceuticals and water filters. And for the first time, it is happening in the U.S., not overseas.

Entrepreneurs at Tidal Vision in October made the leap from their Juneau labs to a pilot plant near Seattle to test an Earth-friendly method that extracts chitin, the structural element in the exoskeletons of shellfish and insects. Their first big run a few weeks ago was tested on a 30-ton batch of crab shells delivered by Trident Seafoods from St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea.

The end product is chitosan, a fibrous polysaccharide which, among other things, can be woven into fabrics and textiles that have an array of commercial and biomedical uses.

Chitosan can fetch $10 to $30,000 a pound depending on quality and usages, and up to $150,000 a pound for pharmaceutical grades, said Craig Kasberg, former fisherman and now Tidal Vision's captain executive officer.

Chitosan has been produced commercially in China and India since the late 1950s by using chemicals and waste methods that would never pass muster in the U.S.

That's all changed with Tidal Vision.

"We do not use harsh chemicals and we are able to recycle 89 percent of the chemicals we use," Kasberg said. "The other 11 percent reacts with everything else in the crab shell — the calcium, protein and lipids — and produces a fertilizer that several agriculture companies are doing trials with."

Tidal Vision expects to process 50,000 tons of crab shells its first year. By 2021, it projects taking up to 100,000 tons of crab shells from Trident plants and other Bering Sea crab fisheries.

"I am a strong believer in 100 percent utilization of our resources and working with Tidal Vision has been fantastic," said Trident Seafoods CEO Joe Bundrant in an email.

The small company's goal is to build full-scale chitin plants next to existing crab processing plants in Alaska, along with mobile plants for areas with smaller catches and shorter seasons.

Tidal Vison's new clothing line, Chitoskin, has caught the attention of Grundens, the maker of waterproof clothing popular with fishermen. By next summer, Alaska salmon fishermen may be wearing rain gear that won't mold or smell.

Kasberg said the company also is developing and testing a chitosan filtration system for a British Columbia coal mining company.

"Chitosan reacts very quickly to toxins and bonds really fast. Instead of filling man-made lakes with effluent that is acidic and full of heavy metals, they could instead be pumping out pure drinking water," Kasberg said. "That's close to my heart with all the trans-boundary river issues in Southeast, and we really are passionate about accomplishing that."

Cutting fish and game boards’ budgets

The state boards of fish and game got an earful about ways to trim their budget in the face of next year's budget cuts, and feedback is continuing online.

More than a dozen Alaskans shared ideas during a day-long listening session last week in Anchorage focused solely on cutting costs related to the boards' annual meeting cycles.

Glenn Haight, executive director of Fish and Game board support, said meeting costs vary, but are roughly $500,000 together.

One message at the Anchorage meeting: Don't cut the public out of the rule-making process.

"We're not at all interested in helping the department diminish the public's ability to participate in the regulatory process," said Gary Stevens on behalf of the Alaska Outdoor Council (alaskaoutdoorcouncil.org). Another unpopular idea was lengthening the current three-year regional meeting cycles, which would save $100,000.

"Don't move the three-year cycle to five-year cycles," said Gary Cline of Dillingham. "That is too long. Mainly because the decisions made at these meetings have such a huge impact on our Alaskan residents."

There was support, too, for maintaining local fish and game advisory committees, which costs up to $230,000 in travel expenses for members of the some 60 committees. Reducing the number of Fish and Game staffers who attend board meetings was suggested. So was reducing the number of regulatory proposals the boards address — some 400 to 500 a year.

"Individuals should still be able to submit proposals," she said. "I really believe that one voice is a strong voice. Because one voice could make a difference, and I don't want it to change where we don't have that voice anymore," Gayla Hoseth of Dillingham told KDLG radio.

The joint Fish and Game boards plan to meet in January. More feedback and ideas are encouraged via an online survey (surveymonkey.com/r/akboards).

Historic Alaska canneries

The Alaska Historical Society is seeking sponsors and donors for its Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative.

"This all started because people are worried about the state of the old canneries around Alaska, and they are scared that so many are disappearing from the landscape. So we really want to do more to document these places," said Anjuli Grantham, a public historian in Kodiak and director for the initiative.

Individuals, businesses and communities are being asked to share photos, memories and stories from the canneries, salteries, processors and herring plants that dotted Alaska's coasts.

"The purpose is to document, preserve and educate about the history of seafood processing in Alaska," Grantham said, adding that only two Alaska canneries are listed on the national register of historic places.

The historic society is offering grant money.

"It's a really broad program," she added. "It could be an oral history project; it could be money to buy lumber if you want to restore a portion of an old cannery building. It could go toward a film or gathering photographs for an archive. If the project has anything to do with the history of the fishing industry in Alaska, you are eligible to apply for funding."

Jan. 1 is the deadline.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist.Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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