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Alaska’s mariculture industry expands, with big production increases in recent years, report says

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Alaska’s mariculture industry expands, with big production increases in recent years, report says

Feb 27, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Yereth Rosen
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Alaska’s mariculture industry expands, with big production increases in recent years, report says
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Mauka Grunenberg looks at live oysters for sale on Aug. 29, 2022, at Sagaya City Market in Anchorage. The oysters came from a farm in Juneau. Oysters, blue mussels and sugar, bull and ribbon kelp are the main products of an Alaska mariculture industry that has expanded greatly in recent years. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

While Alaska’s mariculture industry is small by global standards, production of farmed shellfish and seaweed in the state has increased substantially in recent years, according to a new status report released Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Applications for Alaska mariculture permits averaged about six a year from 2014 to 2018 but increased to about 14 a year from 2019 to 2023, said the State of Alaska Aquaculture report, issued by the NOAA Fisheries.

Growth in seaweed harvest is shown in this graph from NOAA Fisheries' State of Alaska Aquaculture Report issued on Feb. 23, 2024. (Graph provided by NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Region Aquaculture Program)
Growth in seaweed harvest is shown in this graph from NOAA Fisheries’ State of Alaska Aquaculture Report issued on Feb. 23, 2024. (Graph provided by NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Region Aquaculture Program)

Oysters have been a pillar of Alaska mariculture for many years, and sales of Alaska oysters grew from about 4.5 million in 2000 to about 7 million in 2022, according to the report.

The other main mariculture products in Alaska are blue mussels and sugar, ribbon and bull kelp, the report said. In all, 42 invertebrate and seaweed species have been permitted for farming in Alaska, though finfish farming is illegal in the state, the report said.

Seaweed production has grown dramatically in Alaska. It went from almost nothing in 2017 to nearly 900,000 pounds in 2022, the report said.

The global seaweed market is worth close to $10 billion, according to a recent analysis. Production is overwhelmingly dominated by China and other Asian countries, and farmed seaweed is being used for various industrial and pharmaceutical purposes as well as for food, according to a World Bank analysis.

Tostadas with topped with kelp and kelp salsa are arrayed on a platter on Feb. 17,2023, at a reception capping a three-day mariculture conference in Juneau. The tostadas were prepared by Juneau chef Maylin Chavez. The conference was hosted by Alaska Sea Grant and explored the opportunities and challenges of mariculture in Alaska, including seaweed farming. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Tostadas with topped with kelp and kelp salsa are arrayed on a platter on Feb. 17, 2023, at a reception capping a three-day mariculture conference in Juneau. The tostadas were prepared by Juneau chef Maylin Chavez. The conference was hosted by Alaska Sea Grant and explored the opportunities and challenges of mariculture in Alaska, including seaweed farming. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Within the United States, Maine is the leading producer of seaweed, with more than 1 million pounds of product in 2023 and more than 40 active seaweed farming sites in 2023, according to a recent report issued jointly by Sea Grant programs in multiple coastal states. But Alaska’s industry has grown sufficiently to bring the state to second place by 2023, with over 875,000 pounds produced from 30 active sites last year, according to the Sea Grant report.

The new NOAA Fisheries report notes that several initiatives have been launched in recent years to expand the industry in Alaska. The Alaska Mariculture Task Force, formed in 2016, established a goal of developing a $100 million industry by 2020.  In subsequent years, Alaska mariculture programs were granted federal funds to stimulate development of the industry. An important event occurred in 2022 when the Alaska Mariculture Cluster was awarded $49 million made available through infrastructure legislation pushed by the Biden administration. The cluster was formed by the Southeast Conference, a regional economic development organization.

NOAA and the state are in the process of identifying more areas suitable for mariculture through an Aquaculture Opportunity Areas program announced last year.