Legislature considering bills to advance state mariculture

Alaska is getting closer to having a more robust seafood farming industry, potentially adding another billion dollars to the state’s economy over the next few decades.

The House Fisheries Committee perused a pair of bills on March 7 that would make changes to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development’s mariculture revolving loan fund and allow for more enhancement projects for Alaska king crab and other shellfish.

The worldwide market, some believe, needs Alaska’s infrastructure to develop.

“There will be a demand for Alaska farmed shellfish products,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, who introduced the bill. “What we need to do is put the pieces in place to meet that demand.”

The fund makes loans available for shellfish farming, and the bill would expand those loan opportunities in order to jumpstart the industry. The fund itself takes no money from Alaska general fund, so it has no fiscal note. Rather, the treasury collects on loans interest to keep the program self-funding.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, set the bill aside “until a future date.”

Mariculture has gained steam recently as a potential economic driver. Recognizing seafood production as Alaska’s largest source of private employment, lawmakers and leaders are looking to expand the industry’s output.

In early 2016, Gov. Bill Walker appointed an 11-member mariculture task force specifically to figure out how to grow shellfish and sea plant growth in the state.

“The goal of this task force is to bring key stakeholders together and determine how the state can help this industry prosper with Alaska-grown products,” the governor’s press release read.

To that end, representatives from fishing districts are trying to find ways for shellfish farmers to get more access to funding.

“These days we’re all aware that economic diversification is going to be a necessity to get the state to move forward, to help get the state back on the road to a sound economy,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, who introduced the bill to the House Fisheries Committee. “We need to diversify. We need to find ways to make us less dependent on a one-engine economy. There’s an opportunity in the seafood industry with mariculture development. There’s some real prospects there.”

In practice, the bill would open up shellfish and seafood farming to organizations, instead of just individuals as is currently law.

Neuman said he didn’t see why companies that can’t get private financing would be a good idea for the state. Ortiz answered that he didn’t think the industry is established enough to justify funding, and that’s what he’s trying to change — currently, the fund has only loaned out $500,000 in principle to five individual shellfish farmers, out of an available $4.4 million.

“This bill expands the opportunity, creates more players in the game that might source this fund,” said Ortiz. “I think you would agree that if we have capital sitting there for the purpose of developing the economy, we want to see those funds utilized.”

The bill specifies that the farms and hatcheries funded must either benefit a common property fishery — like the state-sponsored salmon hatcheries do — or otherwise benefit the “public interest.”

The bill is trying to solve what Ortiz staffer Elizabeth Bolling described as a “bottleneck.” The revolving mariculture fund was originally intended to encourage small farmers to get into the business of shellfish. However, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game requires all seed to be purchased from Alaska. This requirement makes it difficult for these farmers to purchase a steady supply of seed and feed.

With this in mind, Walker’s mariculture task force wants to open more opportunities for larger organizations, including hatcheries, so that they can produce the building blocks for the smaller farmers.

Julie Decker of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, a task force member, said she expects a need for more money.

“We’re at sort of a chicken or the egg scenario, in that the industry is very small,” she said, “and to actually support that infrastructure is very difficult. This funding mechanism would allow for hatcheries to have a more stable source of funds to get going and allow for shellfish enhancement projects going.”

Decker’s organization believes that Alaska’s mariculture can grow to a $1 billion industry within 30 years — if the state can pave the way.

“We know we don’t have money, but we do have these assets like the revolving mariculture loan fund,” she said. “If we align it with where the industry’s needs are, we can develop it faster.”

The public seems to like the idea, including the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest industry group. Most comments spoke highly of the kind of stability a developed mariculture industry would bring.

Smaller farmers like John Kaiser, who owns Cordova’s Rocky Bay Oysters, are in favor of the bill.

“As farmers we do need seed,” said Kaiser. “There were not that many farmers able to take advantage of it initially. This is a larger pot of money. If it were to be used correctly by even larger entities, I’d have no problem with that. If this would provide the seed…I would not see a problem.”

Angel Drobnica works for the Aleutians Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, one of six Community Development Quota groups that represent 65 Western Alaska villages.

Drobnica, another mariculture task force member, said her communities could benefit from some consistency in their seafood production.

“Fisheries can be unpredictable and unstable,” she said. “Some of the most stable communities have year round processing plants. We believe that mariculture can play a significant role in bringing this stability to fisheries-dependent communities.”

Ortiz also introduced a companion bill, HB 128, which would allow non-profit hatcheries to engage in enhancement projects and restoration projects for shellfish species, including red and blue king crab. With ocean acidification issues and overfishing concerns, Alaska should be putting effort into repairing and controlling some of its most valuable seafood products, proponents argued.

Like HB 76, the bill requires that all such enhancement projects would have to benefit a common property fishery, and outlines permitting requirements.

Updated: 
03/09/2017 - 9:45am