Fish Factor: Alaska seaweed farming shows great potential

The U.S. grows less than one-hundredth of one percent of the world’s $6 billion seaweed market but Alaska has the goods to grow into a major contributor.

A new report assesses the pros and cons of six communities as locations for seaweed processing facilities to assist companies interested in operating in Alaska. It was compiled by McKinley Research Group for the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which has played a central role in keeping Alaska seaweed in the resource development spotlight. Many believe the fledgling industry can top revenues of $100 million in little over a decade.

The six study communities were evaluated based on three categories: availability of seaweed supply, costs of doing business, and partnership opportunities.

So far, Kodiak leads all other regions in terms of supply, energy costs, water and sewer costs, resident labor, property taxes and shipping, with Craig and Ketchikan in the Prince of Wales Island region a close second.

Others include Valdez and Cordova in Prince William Sound, and Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands region.

There are eight active seaweed farms in Alaska, 16 are authorized but not active, and 23 are in the permitting pipeline. Total production so far is 933,000 pounds with a value of $60,540 in 2019, the most recent year of available data.

Alaska’s first crop of sugar and ribbon kelp was harvested in Kodiak in 2018 and production since then has totaled 743,000 pounds. Kodiak now has four farms sited and 11 permitted and/or proposed, totaling 573 acres. Nearly all production has been sold to California-based Blue Evolution which makes frozen, dried and pureed products.

Kodiak also has benefited from a share of a $3.1 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) with the goal of producing seaweed as biofuel.

The Prince of Wales Island region, home to 19 communities, has produced the second-largest seaweed harvest in Alaska at 190,000 pounds. Two farms are active so far with two authorized and six under review, totaling 923 acres. More than three-quarters of the planned development comes from one business: Markos Scheer’s Premium Aquatics which sells seaweed for food products under the name Seagrove Kelp Company.

The Prince William Sound region has 11 seaweed farms currently in the permitting process, which includes 307 acres.

Three proposed farms totaling 132 acres are located in the Aleutians Island region. A 102-acre farm was recently approved near Sand Point for Trident Seafoods. Another proposed farm is at Adak by British Columbia-based Golden Harvest Alaska.

In all, over 2,000 acres are included so far for Alaska seaweed farming. The state Department of Natural Resources accepts new aquatic lease applications between January 1 and April 31 each year.

Eager markets

The seaweed processing report follows one from last August, also done by McKinley for AFDF, that highlights the wide range of markets.

The global seaweed industry produces more than 70 billion pounds of wet-weight harvest per year — more than four times the weight of the world’s combined wild and farmed salmon harvests.

Over 97% of the seaweed is produced in Asia, where nearly all of it is farmed. World farmed production has grown at an average annual rate of 7% a year over the last 20 years.

Most seaweed currently produced in the U.S. is wild harvest. About 80% is rockweed from Maine used for fertilizers and nutritional supplements.

Seaweed gels and thickeners are the largest category sold in international trade by value. These include alginates that already enjoy a well-developed global market with uses as food additives, textile dye thickeners, and dental impression materials, among many others. World alginate sales total more than $345 million annually.

That category is followed by human food products and items such as fertilizers and animal feeds.

Several seaweed species grown in Alaska already have an established role in the cosmetics industry “with current global market values of between $10 and $35 billion and an anticipated annual growth rate of 5% to 7% over the next five years,” the report said.

The rapid growth rates of marine algae and the fact that it doesn’t require land or fertilizer make it a promising tool for sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Once carbon sequestration by seaweed farms is better quantified, it may be possible to sell farmed seaweed projects in the $277 billion carbon credit market. Seaweed’s climate attributes may also increase its value as an ingredient in other products,” the market report added.

In the near-term, the pathway to Alaska’s industry will depend on a mix of public and private investment.

“Growth may hinge on investment from one or more innovative industrial manufacturers who can act as ‘anchor’ customers or partners and help scale demand,” the report said.

Infrastructure and logistics will be a significant (and familiar) challenge for an Alaska seaweed industry.

Both reports said that cost structures and distance from markets limit current opportunities, but may be offset by technological innovation, coordination among growers, and other opportunities to share costs and pool resources. They conclude: “The presence of community support and partnerships will likely be key to the success of future seaweed processing in Alaska.”

Call for crew

The call is out for trainees who want to learn the fishing life firsthand.

It’s the fifth year that the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka has hosted the program which so far has placed over 100 apprentices aboard fishing boats. The training is one way ALFA is attracting younger entrants into Alaska’s industry where the average fisherman’s age is over 50.

“We provide an opportunity for young folks to do a short term or long term experience,” said Natalie Sattler, ALFA program and communications director. “Traditionally, a lot of our apprentices or trainers are on longliners and trollers, but we do offer shorter terms, maybe on a gillnetter or a seiner for a day or even a week. And we’ve also had a couple of high school graduates who went out on a tender for the season.”

Eric Jordan has so far mentored over 50 young fishermen aboard his troller, the I Gotta, and believes the future depends on them learning the right ways to care for the fish and the fisheries.

“Finding crew with some experience who love fishing in Alaska is so critical to the future of our individual businesses. One of the things this program provides is the taste of it,” Jordan said. “Deckhands know they like it, and skippers can recommend them for future employment. It is a win-win for the crewmembers and the skippers.”

ALFA has shared the Crew Training Program curriculum with several organizations throughout Alaska and the U.S. and has received funding to do so, said Linda Behnken, ALFA director. They include the Edgerton Foundation, the City and Borough of Sitka, the Alaska Community Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

The apprentices are paid for their work. The minimum age is 18 and the deadline to apply is March 15. Find out more at alfafish.org.

Fish names needed

The next meeting of the state Board of Fisheries starts in a few weeks but it’s unknown who will fill the seat of Indy Walton who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in September but resigned in December. By law, a new selection must be made within 30 days. The seven-member board will meet from March 10-22 to address Southeast and Yakutat fish and shellfish proposals.

Another appointee is needed for the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission seat vacated by Dale Kelley on March 1. The CFEC is responsible for renewing permits, managing transfers, collecting fisheries data, and arbitrating who can fish.

“The Governor’s office is still taking applications for both positions and a press release will be distributed once the selections are made,” spokesman Jeff Turner said.