Shellfish, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams, seaweeds and biofuels are crops envisioned by a group of Alaskans who are crafting a framework for a statewide mariculture industry expansion.
An 11-member task force created last February by Gov. Walker has wasted no time advancing its mission to put a comprehensive report on Walker’s desk by next March. The group, which has been meeting regularly, also has attracted wide interest from Alaskans who want to serve on advisory committees as the plan takes shape.
The advisory committees include research and development, the environment, regulatory issues, investment and infrastructure, workforce development, and public education and marketing.
“I get several calls a week from interested parties who want to participate,” said Barbara Boxer, the governor’s point person on the task force. “People are charged up for this. It’s a new concept that allows our communities to engage in a way that allows them to maintain their residence in our rural coastal regions. Everyone participating is really committed to developing something that will be beneficial for the entire state.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski also has gotten onboard with the hiring of Charlotte Regula-White, a marine biologist who will be the senator’s mariculture point person.
Globally, shellfish and sea weeds add up to multibillion-dollar sustainable industries and in Alaska, much of the necessary infrastructure is already in place from the seafood industry and hatchery programs. Task force member Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, believes mariculture could become a $1 billion industry for the state in less than 30 years.
At a Feb. 17 public meeting in Juneau, the task force will advance its report, and also get an update on a U.S. Department of Energy grant program that moves mariculture into the macroalgae biofuel sector.
“It not only contributes to small operations in our coastal communities, there also are huge benefits by it being a green industry and cleaning our oceans,” said Boxer. “There are not any down sides to it. We just need to keep engaging the public so they will see this is something that will potentially benefit all Alaskans.”
Interested? Call 1-800-315-6338, access code 29660, to participate in the Feb. 17 mariculture task force meeting starting at 8 am. Sign up to receive ongoing information by email at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game home page.
One of the year’s biggest fish gatherings occurs in two weeks when the state Board of Fisheries meets to sort out Upper Cook Inlet issues with often fractious groups of salmon users.
The fish board sets policy and catch limits for the state’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries, and will consider 174 proposals at the upcoming meeting in Anchorage.
The event will attract a huge audience and many are unfamiliar with the process, said board executive director Glenn Haight. To that end, an informal, one-hour lunch meeting on the first day will run people through the ropes.
“We’ll walk through the Board of Fish process, the terms, how it moves from staff reports to public testimony to committees and deliberations,” Haight said. “We’ll tell them how to provide more effective testimony, how to speak to board members and make a strong impact, and just make them more familiar with it all.”
When you have three minutes to make your case in public testimony, you need to make an impression.
“It’s important to plan that out,” Haight added. “And if you’re going to come back and participate in any of the committees, that is the time to save your really detailed discussions. It’s a valuable opportunity for the board to hear from as many people as possible.”
The Board of Fisheries meets Feb. 23-March 8 at the Anchorage Sheraton. The meetings are live streamed on the web.
Warming Alaska waters are luring all kinds of unusual creatures, and some of the smallest can be the biggest troublemakers.
In the eastern Gulf of Alaska, for example, tiny filter feeders called salps are appearing in large numbers. The gelatinous, jet-propelled tubes can asexually bud off clones at a rapid rate. They then form long feeding chains that graze on the phytoplankton and rob it of the microscopic crustaceans, larvae and nutrients so important to small fish.
“Just the fact that they are here is different from the usual,” said Wesley Strasburger, chief survey scientist for the eastern Gulf of Alaska, based at the NOAA Auke Bay lab in Juneau.
Salp blooms were first spotted in the eastern waters about five years ago and made a big increase in 2015, based on samples taken in tiny, mesh surface trawl surveys that extended from 100 miles out to 200 miles for the first time. Strasburger said the salps also made up a big part of many small fish diets.
“Juvenile pink salmon, chums, sockeye, juvenile rockfishes and juvenile sablefishes were all eating these salps. That is not typical, and their regular diets seem to have been at least in part, displaced by these salps.
“They are not an energetically dense diet. The trade-off is that there are a lot of them.”
Researchers have a seven-year time series comprising 10 categories of zooplankton, he said, and by rough counts salps were in many cases the largest biomass in the lot.
A partnering plankton vacuum bloom called gymnosome also has made an appearance in eastern Gulf waters.
“They were very abundant and ubiquitous this year,” Strasburger said. “So not only do we have these salps filtering all the primary productivity out of the waters; we also have gymnosomes doing the same thing.”
Strasburger said researchers will be closely watching the impacts of the tiny invaders.
“They are squarely on our radar,” he said. “We’re just now trying to figure out how often this happens, when it happens, and what effects it has on the ecosystem.”
Laine Welch has been writing Fish Factor since 1991. The syndicated column runs in nearly 20 Alaska newspapers and websites, and in the U.K. Her daily “Fish Radio” program airs on 30 stations across Alaska and beyond. Laine lives in Kodiak. Visit her website at www.alaskafishradio.com.