The last frontier: Growing mariculture in Alaska

Part 1 of the "Last Frontier" series provides a history and commercial overview of Alaska’s new initiative to grow state mariculture efforts into a billion-dollar industry, and features interviews with political leaders and industry executives. Part 2, appearing Wednesday, 30 March, will explore what work needs to be done in order to meet the goals of the initiative, according to state experts and local Alaskan fishers working in the Alaskan mariculture industry.

Alaska is a big place, so perhaps it’s natural that it spawns big ideas.

In 2014, Julie Decker, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, launched the Alaska Mariculture Initiative. Its goal, according to its concept paper, was grand in scope: to grow mariculture in Alaska from a USD 1 million (EUR 893,000) industry to a USD 1 billion (EUR 893 million) industry within 30 years.

Long supported by the rich bounty of its wild fisheries, which produce an annual value of approximately USD 2 billion (EUR 1.79 billion), Alaska’s government or large industrial entities have never previously focused on growing mariculture in the state. As a result, mariculture in Alaska is currently a decentralized cottage industry of small-scale farmers of aquatic plants and animals, primarily growing Pacific oysters, littleneck clams and mussels.

Seeing great potential in Alaska’s vast marine areas and strong fishing culture, Decker pushed forward her dream for a much larger and more diverse seafood industry in Alaska. Backed by a grant from NOAA, Decker and the AFDF have made steady progress in the past few years, finally earning an official endorsement of their efforts by Alaska Governor Bill Walker in late February.

“Our vision is that Alaska becomes a new frontier for aquaculture,” Decker said. “We are on our way to making that a reality.”

On 29 February, Gov. Walker signed Administrative Order 280, establishing the Alaska Mariculture Task Force, a group of 11 experts working in government, industry, academia and other areas - all with expertise in mariculture or the intricacies of doing business in a state renowned for being massive, remote and inaccessible.

“Mariculture represents a tremendous opportunity to diversify our economy, strengthen our coastal communities, and provide healthy food to the world by using sustainable practices that are a foundation of our current fishery resources,” Walker said in his announcement of the administrative order. “The goal of this task force is to bring key stakeholders together and determine how the state can help this industry prosper with Alaska-grown products.”

Alaska has more than 6,600 miles of coastline as measured by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and almost 34,000 miles if tidal areas are included. That gives it enormous potential for growth, Decker said, especially as little of that area is currently used for any type of mariculture. Also aiding in development is the fact that Alaska’s entire coastline within three miles of shore is owned by the state, easing the permitting process in a place known just as much for its dislike of red tape as its pristine waters.

“We approached the governor with this idea early on in the process because we knew the state has to play a big role in this effort if it is going to succeed,” Decker said. “Because it manages all waters within three miles of shore, it had to be a big player in cooperative manner or we weren’t going to get anywhere.”

A focus-point of Decker’s pitch to the governor is her belief that the mariculture movement can reinvigorate coastal communities that are dependent on salmon fishing but whose processing plants and fishing boats sit dormant eight months a year.

“A primary goal of the initiative is local economic development,” Decker said. “Many coastal Alaskan communities already familiar with the industry and would welcome a more full utilization of the rich maritime resources they have out their back doors.”

Alaska Commissioner of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Chris Hladick said Decker’s pitch was convincing, and Hladick said he’s now a proponent of the mariculture initiative.

“From an economic standpoint, Alaska has got some issues with our state budget, as everyone knows,” Hladick said, referring to a budget hole that has emerged as a result of rock-bottom energy prices. “Our department is going to support everything we can do to help the state’s economy, so we took a look and we like the possibilities that mariculture can provide.”

Hladick’s department has launched a USD 5 million (EUR 4.47 million) loan program designed to aid businesses starting or expanding mariculture efforts. Companies can borrow USD 100,000 (EUR 89,316) per year with a cap of USD 300,000 (EUR 267,949) per borrower, Hladick said, and payments may be deferred for up to six years.

“This takes into account the lag-time farms have in seeing a return-on-investment,” Hladick said.

Hladick said his department is investigating ways to expand or alter the loan program so it can be responsive to the recommendations of the governor’s task force. The department also plans to review any regulatory issues the task force identifies as impediments to the growth of mariculture in the state, he said.

According to the administrative order, either Hladick himself or someone representing his department will serve on the task force. Hladick said he is eager to investigate what other states and countries have done to augment mariculture.

“I’m sure we’ll get a good group of folks together to look at it from every angle,” he said. “What’s nice is that this has been done all over the world. Coming late to the party can be an advantage for us.”

Decker said the task force will conduct a detailed study of the successful mariculture efforts in places including Washington state, New Zealand and British Columbia, Canada. Decker joked that off the state’s nickname, “The Last Frontier,” could easily be applied to its status when it comes to mariculture.

“It really is the new frontier for aquaculture. Every other part of the world, for the most part, is already developed,” she said. “We don’t have to re-create the wheel – much of what we want to do already exists in other parts of the world,” Decker said.

The task force is scheduled to have its first meeting in April, and Gov. Walker is expected to name appointees to the remaining open seats on the task force soon. Decker said she is pleased with the progress of the initiative and eager to continue working with the positive momentum it has finally started to generate.

“I’ve been encouraged to find that, by and large, people are on board,” Decker said. “My job is to continue to speak out and educate people, because the more they understand how they’re going to benefit – that this is a total positive and that it’s not something to be afraid of – the more easy the pitch becomes.”


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