Mariculture poised to come of age in Alaska

NOAA Researcher Mike Murphy holding Laminaria saccharina sugar kelp algae. Kelp grows over the winter months in Southeast Alaska, and is not difficult to farm. According to Markos Scheer, it’s a $20 billion industry worldwide. (NOAA photo/David Csepp)

Alaska’s mariculture industry is in its infancy, compared with other regions of the world, but it has the potential to be much larger — maybe worth as much as $1 billion within three decades.

Markos “Mark” Scheer is a board member of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which published the first phase of a study called The Alaska Mariculture Initiative in 2015. He discussed his organization’s hopes for mariculture in front of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce April 19.

Scheer’s message was straightforward. There’s money to be made.

“The plan, the vision that we decided, is to create a billion-dollar industry in 30 years,” Scheer said. “It sounds like a big target and high aspirations, but when you think about the amount of area suitable for mariculture in Alaska, it’s really not that high of a target.”

“For example, there are about 35,000 miles of coastline in Alaska,” he said. “If we developed 1 percent of that coastline and utilized it for producing various species, whether it be oysters or mussels or kelp or things like that, it has the production capacity to exceed the rest of the continental United States. That’s about 450,000 acres total in the state.”

“It’s a fairly small area by percentage and total, but the production capacity — because we have such wonderful resources, clean water and existing infrastructure — is entirely attainable.”

Scheer called mariculture “the low-hanging fruit” of economic opportunity in Alaska. He said that worldwide the harvest of kelp was a $20 billion industry, and showed a video of kelp farmers in Maine who were marketing kelp as “the new kale.”

He said the U.S. supplied only 15 percent of the 4.4 million tons of oysters farmed each year.

The Sitka Chamber was generally receptive, but there were some long memories in the audience.

A mariculture permit application in Sitka Sound about two decades ago encountered significant opposition from residents who already used the proposed area for subsistence or recreation.

Scheer thought barriers could be removed by cultivating a different product.

“Most of the recreational uses of coastal plans in Southeast takes place between May and September,” Scheer said. “I would say the vast majority of that, the tourist industry. Kelp is seeded in September and harvested in April. I think in reality the conflict for that space is going to be pretty minimal, number one. And number two, relative to the amount of area, we’re not talking about covering every coastline with kelp farms.”

The state legislature created the system for mariculture leasing in 1988, and Scheer…

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