Emerging mariculture industry seeks to streamline permitting

  • Oysters grow in stacked cases in Hamilton Bay near Kake. Boosters of the mariculture industry in Alaska tout the vast potential for the economy by developing more farms for oysters, geoducks, kelp and even biofuels. (AP Photo/File/Capital City Weekly)

Alaska may be famous for its wild fish, but some are working to make room in the state’s waters for more shellfish, kelp and crabs on aquatic farms.

Mariculture is a hot topic in fisheries right now. Essentially, mariculture can be defined as the cultivation of plants or animals in controlled saltwater environments, but in Alaska it doesn’t include finfish, as that’s illegal in the state. So mariculture farmers have stuck to primarily kelp and oysters so far, but they’re starting to get more adventurous.

As of December 2018, 58 aquatic farms were operating in the state along with five hatcheries and seven nurseries, though only 41 of the farms documented production in 2017, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Oysters are still the most widely grown product, though kelp is gaining ground; after the first operations for kelp were permitted in 2016, four farms had produced 16,570 pounds of ribbon and sugar kelp by the following year.

A major obstacle remaining, though, is the regulatory hurdle to get an aquatic farm permitted. A bill in the Legislature — House Bill 116 — would trim down some of that procedure with an eye toward getting more operations out the gate.

The bill, sponsored by representatives Andi Story, D-Juneau, and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, would fast-track permit renewals for farms in good standing for their first renewal cycle, which covers 10 years.

Story clarified in a hearing before the House Fisheries Committee on April 23 that it would make no changes for salmon hatcheries, which operate in the state largely without saltwater net pens.

There’s been a recent surge in license applications to the state for aquatic farms, increasing the wait time, Story said.

“Because of the recent increase in the number of aquaculture farm leases … it now takes on average 18 months or more to approve an aquatic farm lease,” she said.

To obtain a permit, the applicant first has to apply to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for the use of the tidelands, which requires a 30-day public review and comment period and may require a site survey by ADFG.

After the public comments are compiled and evaluated, DNR and ADFG issue a final decision. If the permit is denied, the applicant can appeal; if it’s approved, the permit is good for 10 years. The DNR permit’s annual fees are $450 or $875 for the first acre and $125 for each additional acre, with a $2,500 minimum performance bond required and a commercial use requirement by the fifth year with $3,000 per acre or a $15,000 max per farm site.

ADFG requires an annual operating report for each species cultured as well as permits to acquire and transport wildlife. On top of that, to harvest and sell food products, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation requires that the operator obtain a water qualify classification, conduct shellfish sampling for paralytic shellfish poison and obtain shellfish processing permits, according to documentation submitted to the Legislature.

It can be expensive and time-consuming. Meta Mesdag, co-owner of Salty Lady Seafood Company in Juneau, told the committee members that it’s taken about $150,000 of investment so far for her family’s approximately 1-acre operation growing geoduck clams and oysters.

“(Oysters) take about three years to grow, and the geoduck will take seven,” she said. “Unfortunately, we only have five years left on our lease so we won’t see any revenue from our geoducks before we have to go through the renewal process all over again.”

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which promotes the exploration and development of fisheries throughout the state, credited the work of the state Mariculture Task Force with the growth in interest. In a letter of support for HB 116, the foundation noted that the vetting process for renewing a permit slows down the process for new applicants.

“HB 116 is important step toward efficiently developing a mariculture industry in Alaska,” wrote AFDF Executive Director Julie Decker in the letter. “HB 116 will allow for one renewal of an aquatic farm site through a simpler internal process which does not require public comment, if the lease is in good standing/compliance. However, the second renewal would still be required to go through the extended process similar to a new application.”

The Mariculture Task Force, established by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016 after the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation obtained a federal grant in 2014 to fund its Alaska Mariculture Initiative, developed a strategy released in March 2018 aiming to make Alaska’s mariculture industry worth $100 million in the next 20 years. The industry produced about $1.5 million in sales annually in the state in 2017.

In the future, the primarily revenue drivers would be oysters, seaweed and geoduck clams, with smaller markets in mussels, sea cucumbers and king crab, according to the group’s Mariculture Development Plan.

The primary recommendations the group produced are securing seed supply through hatcheries, passing state legislation to help fund hatcheries through the mariculture revolving loan fund and allow shellfish enhancement and filling several research and coordination positions for mariculture, among other goals.

Alaska is significantly behind the Pacific Northwest in mariculture development. Some farms in Washington operate thousands of acres and employ hundreds of people. Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has been operating in the Seattle area since the 1890s, employs about 500 people and holds leases on more than 10,000 acres of tidelands in Washington.

Some commenters raised a concern about the size of farms in the future. DNR does not currently have a size cap, other than that a farm cannot take up more than a third of the bay or inlet where it is located.

Though the DNR considers risks like navigation hazards when reviewing farm permits, the agency is starting to consider ways to address concerns about farm size, said Christy Colles, who manages the shore leasing program for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, during the House Fisheries Committee meeting.

“These new farms at this magnitude are by and large new to the state,” she said. “We haven’t really had much of a chance to think about how we can address those.”

“Large” is a relative term in Alaska compared to the enormous operations in the Lower 48, said Mark Scheer, who operates Premium Aquatics near Craig, farming kelp and Pacific oysters. Though he said his lease is for more than 100 acres, he doesn’t use all of it at once.

“I think it’s important to recognize that this is a new transition for Alaska,” he said. “The relative scale of what we’re doing here is modest at best.”

HB 116 was passed out of the House Fisheries Committee to the House Resources Committee, scheduled for its next hearing on May 3.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/01/2019 - 9:10am

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