Alaska Fish News: State attracts 20 Alaska aqua-farm applications

Twenty applications for Alaska aquatic farm permits were received by the state by the April 30 deadline.

That’s the highest number in 17 years, said Flip Pryor, statewide aquaculture section chief at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game which issues the permits.

ADF&G partners with the state Dept. of Natural Resources which leases the watery acreage where farmers grow their crops.

This year ADF&G received 20 farm applications and 1 hatchery application.

Of those, two are for shellfish only, 16 are for kelp only, and two are shellfish and kelp combinations.

In terms of locations, Pryor added: “We don’t have defined regions for aquatic farming like we do for salmon enhancement, but we loosely break them down to Southeast (all the SE panhandle), Southcentral (Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet) and West (Kodiak and westward).”

There were eight applications from South Central (365 acres), seven for Southeast (6,994 acres!) and five from the West (286 acres).

Pryor said farm acreage “seems to be of interest to a lot of people.”

“Please keep in mind that this is the requested lease size, which requires anchors etc. to fit inside the leased footprint. A general rule of thumb is the surface footprint will be roughly 40% of the lease footprint,” he explained.

Kelp farms, which operate late fall through early spring, have the largest footprints compared to oysters and other shellfish.

“There is one really large kelp application in SE that is skewing the acreage there, but I’ll wait until further in the application process before commenting more on that,” Pryor added.

Currently, there are 82 aquatic farms permitted to operate in Alaska and five hatcheries. Forty-three grow shellfish only, 22 grow kelp only, and 17 are a combination.

Forty-three farms are located in SE (641 acres), 29 in SC (262 acres) and 10 in the West (313 acres). Pryor added that a kelp farm as far west as Adak is in the 2022 application mix.

To call Alaska’s aquaculture a “growing industry” is a bad pun but a real truth. It has a long way to go in terms of generating much of a reliable revenue stream.

The tiny state of Maine, for example, has 30 farms and produces 60% of total edible seaweed for the US. In 2019, farmed seaweed harvesting and processing contributed $13.4 million to the state’s economy, according to The Island Institute.

In 2021, Alaska aqua farm sales topped $3 million industry wide. Most were Pacific oysters at just over $2.5 million.

Sales of ribbon and sugar kelp were just shy of $300,000.

For 2020, there were just over $1 million in sales, industry wide (COVID hit). Pacific oysters were almost $900,000 of those sales, with kelp being just below $200,000.

Flip Pryor said small growers fill a niche, but it will take bigger operators to scale up the industry’s economic potential for Alaska.

“The small growers can do things like supply local restaurants or that kind of stuff really well because of very low transport costs compared to shipping stuff down to the Lower 48,” he said.

“But it’s going to take those big farms and big processors that have money to invest and can get something going to bring that volume of product up and make those economies of scale happen and provide a constant product. Because people that are buying kelp for biofuels don’t want a boom-and-bust sort of thing. They want to know that you can count on X number of pounds every single year. And that’s definitely going to take some big operations in the water.”

Kodiak and the Prince of Wales Island region come out on top for the state’s best seaweed processing regions. That’s the conclusion of a study that assessed the suitability of six communities to assist companies interested in operating in Alaska. The six locations were evaluated based on three broad categories: availability of seaweed supply, costs of doing business, and partnership opportunities.

It lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.

It was done for the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation by McKinley Research Group.

Ultimately, the goal is to grow a $100 million aquaculture industry by 2038.

Many, like AFDF director Julie Decker, believe that value is conservative due to increasing demand for shellfish and sea plants.

“It’s a matter of putting the pieces in place and everybody rowing in the same direction. That means the state administration, the legislature, the industry and the public. You must have public support for being able to use public lands on public waters. And we have that, for the most part,” Decker said.

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod. She retired in April 2022 from her Fish Factor reports, but now produces a blog at alaskafish.news.