As Gov. Bill Walker prepares to sign a bill this week enacting the Alaska Mariculture Development Plan, 16 new applicants hope to soon begin growing shellfish and seaweed businesses in just over 417 acres of tideland areas in Alaska.
The new growers will add to the 35 farms and 6 hatchery/nurseries that already are producing a mix of oysters, clams, mussels and various seaweeds. Eventually, sea cucumbers, scallops, giant geoduck clams and algae for biofuels will be added into the mix.
Most of the mariculture requests in Alaska are located in Southeast and Southcentral regions and range in size from .02 acres at Halibut Cove to 292 acres for two sites at Craig.
Data from the state Department of Natural Resources show that two farms have applied at Kodiak totaling nearly 37 acres, and one Sitka applicant has plans for a 15 acre plot. Other communities getting into the mariculture act include Seldovia, Port Chatham, Juneau, Naukati, Cordova, Ketchikan and Gustavus.
In 2017, Alaskan farms produced 11,456 pounds of clams, 1,678 pounds of mussels, 16,570 pounds of seaweeds and 1.8 million oysters.
Oysters always have been the dominate mariculture crop, and several farmers have added kelp to their acreage. The seaweed
takes just three months to grow to harvestable size and can provide a ready cash flow to farmers while they wait for up to three years for their bivalves to ripen.
Kelp is poised to be one of Alaska’s biggest crops with one of the biggest payouts.
The first Alaska crop of 15,000 pounds was harvested last year at Kodiak, which yielded a payday of about $10,000 for grower Nick Mangini. This year he tripled his take with 42,000 pounds of two products, brown kelp (alaria) and sugar kelp.
Mangini said 75 percent of the crop was alaria, for which he received 90 cents a pound and 45 cents a pound for the sugar kelp, adding up to more than $33,000.
The kelp is marketed under the name Kodiak Island Sustainable Seaweed (KISS) and sold to a California company called Blue Evolution.
“We are making it into products that are familiar to North American consumers, so our first items were pastas and macaroni and cheese,” said founder Beau Perry. “It actually deepens the flavor profile. Everyone from moms and dads who are feeding it to their kids to gourmet chefs are responding very positively.”
It’s all a drop in the bucket compared to the real potential for the new industry in Alaska.
“If only 3 tenths of a percent of Alaska’s 35,000 miles of coastline was developed for oysters, for example, it could produce 1.3 billion oysters at 50 cents adding up to $650 million a year,” said Julie Decker, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation and head of an 11-member mariculture task force established in 2016 by Governor Walker through administrative order.
The task force concluded that mariculture crops could yield $1 billion for the state within 30 years.
The governor plans to sign the bill at grower Trevor Sande’s farm near Ketchikan.
Treadwell talks fish
Politics aside, one thing that can be said about Republican candidate for governor, Mead Treadwell, is that he knows fish.
“One thing I know is that fishing is Alaska’s largest employer and you can’t have good fishing unless you have good science and transparent management,” he said in a phone interview.
Treadwell touts research as the cornerstone for fisheries sustainability.
“I believe we could double or triple the endowed science available for North Pacific, Bering Sea and Arctic marine research and I think it’s very important to do,” he said.
Treadwell was a past chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, involved with the North Pacific Research Board and one of the earliest advocates for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and Alaska’s Community Development Quota program.
As a student of international fisheries policy law, Treadwell said his first job was as a ‘foot soldier’ working with then Dept. of Interior Secretary Wally Hickel in the fight for the 200 mile limit that removed foreign fishing fleets from U.S. waters.
Treadwell pointed to other protein industries and said he believes Alaska’s seafood industry could add jobs and revenues by using more of every fish.
“Other industries sell everything but the squeal,” he said. “I think we have to do much more with all of the fish and add the value here so we are not exporting jobs. Let’s look at our incentives for keeping more processing plants open year round — it might be a fix in power costs or something to do with tax policy.”
Treadwell said he is a big supporter of growing the state’s mariculture industry, including biofuels.
“As governor you control the tidelands. We can back that up with a process that helps financing and helps grow a new industry. I’m excited about that,” he said. “And this opportunity with energy is also significant. I’ve visited some of the labs that are working on algal energy and we have to look at these kinds of opportunities to diversify our economy.”
As governor, Treadwell said he also would fight to get more Chinook salmon for Southeast Alaskans who have lost over 60 percent of their catch quotas in the treaty with Canada.
“We have lost too much of that allocation and it’s just not fair,” he said.
Numerous attempts to interview Mead Treadwell’s Republican opponent, Mike Dunleavy, were unsuccessful.
Fish scientists proved years ago that the tiniest traces of copper in water can affect a salmon’s sense of smell. Now, new research shows that increasing levels of acidity in the oceans does the same thing. The damage is caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, which is generated primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, like oil and coal. The CO2 combines with seawater to produce carbonic acid, which makes the water more acidic.
Fish use their sense of smell to find food, elude predators, locate spawning areas, even to recognize one another. Losing it could mean big trouble for the fishing industry, tourism and global nutrition.
“In the marine environment it has some serious implications. If there are predators around and the fish are not able to respond to these danger signals in the water, they would be the next snack for these larger predators,” said Jason Sandahl at Oregon State University who was one of the first to show how contaminants can disrupt the chemical balance of sea creatures.
His studies showed that copper levels at just two parts per billion impaired small salmon’s sense of smell.
Last month, scientists at England’s University of Exeter compared the behavior of juvenile sea bass at carbon dioxide levels typical of today’s ocean conditions with those predicted for the end of the century.
The results showed that the sense of smell in the fish was reduced by half. They also found that sea bass exposed to the more acidic conditions swam less and were less likely to react when encountering the smell of a predator. The longer the fish were in high CO2 levels, the worse they fared.
The scientists concluded that future levels of carbon dioxide can affect fish population numbers and entire ecosystems. While their study was on sea bass, the researchers said they believe all species important to commercial and sport fisheries are likely to be affected in a similar way, and possibly crabs and lobsters as well.
Pollock is tops
Alaska pollock is the top fish catch in the world for four years running, toppling anchovies from Chile and Peru.
More than 40 million commercial fishermen were out at work on global waters on nearly five million boats, of which 90 percent are under 40 feet.
Those numbers have held steady over several years, said the latest State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report compiled every other year by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
It is the only publication of its kind that oversees fisheries track records and trends around the globe.
Highlights from 2016 show that the world’s total marine catch was nearly 80 million tons, a slight decrease due to that drop in anchovies.
Aquaculture represented 53 percent of all seafood eaten and it is the fastest growing food production sector on the planet. Nearly 600 different species items are farmed around the world – number one is carp.
Growing aquatic plants, especially seaweeds, has more than doubled in 20 years topping 30 million tons.
In per capita terms, global fish consumption has grown about 1.5 percent per year – from under 20 pounds in 1961 to 45 pounds.
Americans eat far less fish, averaging about 15 pounds a year.
So how are the world’s fish stocks doing?
Sixty percent were called ‘maximally sustained’ and 33 percent were classified as being fished at unsustainable levels.
Problem regions were the Mediterranean, Southeast Pacific and the Southwest Atlantic, with 60 percent of their stocks called overfished.
By contrast, the Northeast, Northwest Pacific and Central and Southwest Pacific had the lowest levels of overfishing ranging from 13 to 17 percent.
The World Fisheries Report said that impacts from climate change are likely to push down global ocean production by six percent by the year 2100, and 11 percent in tropical zones.
• Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally.