Push to grow Alaska’s mariculture includes new how-to training for budding seaweed farmers

A mass of kelp in Petersburg. (Courtesy of the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center)

There’s a new opportunity next February in three Alaskan communities for people interested in getting into the industry of farming seaweed.

The training is geared toward those in commercial fishing, tribal organizations or other coastal residents.

Julie Decker is executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, a non-profit founded in 1978. Over the past five years the foundation has spearheaded an initiative to grow mariculture in the state. Decker noted an increase in the number of people looking to get a start in the industry, whether it’s shellfish or seaweed farming.

“We’ve also recognized that seaweed is sort of the entry point for the industry because it’s relatively cheaper gear so less capital needs to get involved,” Decker said. It’s also an annual crop so cash flow is a little bit easier.”

The training will include an online webinar and in-person workshops planned for ten people each in Kodiak, Ketchikan and Sitka along with mentoring for a select few. Decker said they’re looking for applicants who have experience on the water.

“So that we think they’ll be fairly successful from the get-go, since this is not a long workshop, you know there’s not a lot that goes into it but we think it’s enough to give people that have say some skills working on the water already, give them an understanding of the application process and some other things about how to grow seaweed that would make them successful,” she explained.

Seaweed farming is seen as a natural fit for those in commercial fishing, with the boats and gear that could be used to set up a farm and a fishing season that often cries out for off-season opportunities. It’s a well-established industry in other parts of the globe and one that’s just starting to take off in Alaska. But it is gathering momentum here. A Juneau company Barnacle Seafoods just won first place in the retail category for the Symphony of Seafood contest with a bullwhip kelp hot sauce. Four out of the 20 entries in that annual competition were seaweed products.

The training is free. But applicants from outside those three communities have to pay their own travel and lodging costs. Applications are being accepted online until December 20th.

Alaska Sea Grant is among the other partners in the training program. Others are Green Wave, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Blue Evolution and OceansAlaska.

Melissa Good is marine advisory program agent in Unalaska and said the training is aimed at people who don’t know a lot about farming.

“We’re going to cover topics from seaweed species, their life cycles through what kind of gear they’re going to need and business plans, funding sources to get into that and really all of the steps it takes from going through your permitting process, identifying what you want to grow, to marketing,” Good said.

Good is also involved in researching what it takes to get a farm going in the Aleutian Islands. Alaska Sea Grant has partnered with the Aleutians East Borough to set up a pilot farm in Sand Point. Good said they hope to growing two different species of kelp next winter and harvesting in the spring of 2021.

“Our hope is that we develop an innovative type of farm that can withstand our weather conditions,” Good explained. “We are living within an extreme environment; they call it the birth place of the winds for a very good reason. So we need to show that this can be done here.”

In the first year the kelp grown at that farm will be donated to the community and any seafood processing companies that are interested in it.