Kelp farming took center stage at a mariculture conference held in Kodiak this week, bringing together scientists, regulators and fishermen from across Alaska to talk about the growing industry.
The conference was organized by the Kodiak Archipelago Leadership Institute, a nonprofit focused on sustainability in Kodiak’s small coastal communities. Until now, the institute had only provided training and support for terrestrial farming in the Kodiak area Native villages, including Ouzinkie, Old Harbor, Port Lions and Larsen Bay.
“We were going to have a 90-minute webinar on the status of kelp farming in Kodiak, and a number of community members said they wanted more than that,” said Robbie Townsend Vennel, the institute’s managing director.
The webinar quickly snowballed into a two-day conference held at Kodiak College, drawing in more than 50 participants.
The institute’s work is funded through a United States Department of Agriculture grant, part of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program.
The conference began with a presentation by Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.
According to Decker, Alaskans can derive economic, cultural and industrial benefits from mariculture as well as enhance food security.
Mariculture, or the enhancement, restoration and farming of shellfish and seaweed, can complement Alaska’s $6 billion seafood industry, she said. It builds on existing assets, such as vessels, seafood processing plants and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
The mariculture industry is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion, according to Alaska Sea Grant, a marine research, education and extension service headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Mariculture can also have environmental benefits, Decker said.
“In particular, seaweed seems to be coming forward as potentially important for carbon removal, with a potential to reduce ocean acidification in local waters where it is grown,” she said.
Despite the benefits, Decker said that seaweed farmers in Alaska face many challenges.
“If you’re here because you want to make an easy buck, you might want to leave,” Decker told the conference participants. “There is a lot of opportunity. If you are willing to work through some of the challenges, I think you’ll be rewarded in the long run.”
Arguably the biggest challenge facing kelp farmers is the authorization process, which can take up to three years, according to Lexa Meyer, Alaska mariculture manager for Blue Evolution, a California-based company that buys kelp from Alaska producers and markets it to consumers.
The process includes applying for a 10-year lease from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, an operation permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for building structures within navigable waters, and passing a sanitation survey by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Meyer works with different kelp farmers in the Kodiak region, including a 10-acre farm in Onion Bay, a 17-acre farm in Womens Bay, an 18-acre farm by Humpy Island, and a 20-acre farm in Larsen bay.
Farms in the area focus on ribbon kelp and sugar kelp and rely on a kelp hatchery located in Kodiak.
While Kodiak farms have been lucrative, producing more than 200,000 pounds of kelp this year, Meyer said there is room for more, and Blue Evolution is looking to expand its network of farms.
Currently, Blue Evolution offers farmers 90 cents per pound for ribbon kelp and 45 cents per pound for sugar kelp. Meyer said she hopes to offer more, depending on market fluctuations.
Meyer is waiting for approval for a new 82-acre farm in Kodiak, submitted for approval in 2018.
When looking for a new farm site, Meyer said people should look for good water exchange, avoid existing kelp beds and marine mammal haulouts, ensure there are no conflicts with existing fisheries, and consider ease of access to their farm, among other considerations.
After kelp is harvested every year between April and June, Meyer relies on Ocean Beauty Seafood for processing. There, it is blanched and flash frozen before it is sent to high-end food companies. Until now, local kelp farmers have not sold their products locally. However, Meyer said she hopes to begin selling at the weekly Wednesday Midweek Markets in downtown Kodiak.
Blue Evolution supports the Kodiak economy by working with Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Meyer said.
“They love having us because we actually fill in a shoulder season between salmon fishing and their winter fisheries,” she said. “We’ve been able to keep a lot of people employed.”
Blue Evolution will continue to focus on increasing the annual kelp harvest in Kodiak before expanding to other regions of Alaska.
According to Tamsen Peeples, a kelp mariculture specialist at the University of Alaska Southeast, Kodiak now has the opportunity to play a part in a huge global industry. Seaweed harvest volumes have increased steadily over the last half century.
The U.S. is a large seaweed consumer, in anything from food to fertilizers to cosmetics to fuel, she said. But most seaweed is farmed in Asia, where some farms are large enough to be seen from space.
Kelp is farmed by harvesting spores and getting them to grow on long strings.
Peeples said that farming can be cost prohibitive. Large expenses include gear, shipping, fuel for transporting kelp to the processor, among others.
“The cost of doing anything in Alaska can be very steep, especially as you go more and more remote,” she said.
There’s also very little understanding of seaweed in Alaska from a scientific perspective. Peeples said she has observed variation in life cycles, plant fertility, growth rates, and plant shapes from season to season and from site to site.
Moreover, the environmental impacts of larger farms are unknown.
“There hasn’t been anything to study yet,” Peeples said. “I think it’s only going to be positive, though. We’re basically creating habitat.”
Kelp beds serve as a nursery for a number of economically viable fish species, including halibut.
“We might see an increase of these fish species in the area,” she said.
Cynthia Pring-Ham, aquatic farming coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that, while Kodiak kelp farmers have not reported any conflicts with other fisheries, in Southeast Alaska some farmers have clashed with dive fishermen.
Pring-Ham said dive fisheries share an opening area with farm sites.
“We’re stressing communication and we’re hoping they can coexist,” she said, adding that she predicts more conflicts will arise in the future as farm areas grow and fisheries experience more stressors.
Pring-Ham explained that part of the authorization process for new farms is meant to ensure that kelp farming doesn’t conflict with existing fisheries.
There are no seaweed-specific permits or regulations in Alaska, and seaweed is managed in the same way that shellfish are, making it challenging to keep up with interest.
Farming applications are coming in faster than they can be processed, Pring-Ham said.
In 2019, 12 new operations applied for authorization, none of which has received authorization as of yet. Alaska has 11 active and authorized farms.
The application process hasn’t been updated since 2011, and Pring-Ham said updating it can simplify and expedite the process.
“It’s two steps forward, one step back,” she said. “It’s like buying a house, sometimes.”
Despite the challenges, both Decker and Peeples said kelp farmers should stick together as the industry expands.
Meyer said Blue Evolution is competing with larger corporations that have taken interest in the seafood farming industry.
Trident Seafoods, a Seattle-based corporation, applied for a 100-acre farm near Sand Point and 25-acre farm in Kodiak in 2019.
“There are a lot of big companies that really want to get in the game, and we’re small. We could easily get crushed by somebody the size of Trident,” Meyer said.
To protect their niche in the market, Blue Evolution treats their seaweed processing as proprietary, and it is done at Ocean Beauty behind closed doors.
Peeples said she doesn’t think that farmers need to compete with each other.
“There’s enough seaweed and enough coastline here that I think we can all get in on this industry.”