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Alaskans assess state's mariculture potential

the Fish Site Editor
21 April 2017, at 1:00am

Alaskas mariculture industry could be worth as much as $1 billion a year within three decades.

So claimed Mark Scheer, a board member of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, who discussed the organization’s hopes for growing seaweed and molluscs in front of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week.

KCAW, a public radio station in Sitka, reported on Scheer’s presentation to the chamber, in which he said: “The plan, the vision that we decided, is to create a billion-dollar industry in 30 years. Now 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. 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.”

According to the broadcaster, Scheer stressed the importance of the state’s infrastructure – with an existing capacity for processing, transportation and access to markets. He also referred to mariculture as “the low-hanging fruit” of economic opportunity in Alaska.

According to KCAW, the Sitka Chamber was generally receptive, but some recalled the fact that a mariculture permit application in Sitka Sound around two decades ago encountered significant opposition from residents who already used the proposed area for subsistence or recreation.

Scheer countered by pointing out that: “Most of the recreational uses of coastal plans in Southeast takes place between May and September. 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.”

Although the state legislature created the system for mariculture leasing back in 1988, Scheer said it was still “a cottage industry”, worth $1 million in 2014.

However, he also pointed to opportunities for growth, saying: “The potential for it as another economic development opportunity for the state — for whatever reason — is now much more on the radar. It’s due in no small part to the realities of the Alaska budget situation. You’ve got to look to build opportunities. You know there isn’t a timber industry. I think a lot of the resource extraction industries are having a difficult time for any number of reasons. And this is an industry that is supplemental to what currently exists and frankly, is pretty environmentally-friendly.”

Finally, Scheer emphasized the difference between mariculture and salmon farming. “Commercial fishing is a pillar of our economy and always will be,” he said. “We don’t grow anything with fins.”