Alaska Sea Grant has recieved new federal funds to develop sustainable aquaculture projects in Alaska.
In Sand Point – a community of about a thousand people out along the Alaska Peninsula and Shumagin Islands – an innovative new seaweed farm is getting underway.
Alaska Sea Grant has partnered with the Aleutians East Borough to set up the first seaweed farm in the Aleutian Islands region, growing two to four different types of edible kelp.
It's part of a $16 million award from National Sea Grant that will fund 42 collaborative aquaculture projects across the country.
Melissa Good, Alaska Sea Grant's marine advisory agent in Unalaska, said they will be using the $99,800 grant to test a new farm design that replicates a natural kelp forest environment in a 10-acre area 12 miles from the community of Sand Point.
While most seaweed farms grow one species of kelp on a nylon line that's then put into the ocean, Good said this project is going to try something new.
"We're going to try a system where we have two species of kelp: one species that is hanging down and then another species that has floats on it, so it's upward facing towards the light," said Good.
Growing seaweed is a particularly sustainable type of farming, according to Good, that creates habitat and mitigates ocean acidification. And rather than using new materials, they can reuse old fishing gear – like nylon lines, anchors, cement blocks, and buoys – to build the farm.
But she said while Alaska can produce a lot of high nutrient value seaweed, and the mariculture industry continues to grow in the state, it's not a very high economic value product.
"If you look across the state of Alaska, we have beautiful, lush kelp forest," said Good. "We can grow kelp. We have a lot of nutrients in our water. We have cold water. We have prime conditions for it. But there are bottlenecks in the processing and getting it to market."
There are already at least 16 seaweed farms in Alaska – like in Kodiak and Juneau – but this would be the first in the Aleutians region.
The goal is to launch the pilot farm and then pass it off to community members who want to continue with commercial aquaculture production.
A number of local fishermen have agreed to help with the launch. And Good said in addition to training adults, the program will teach kids about aquaculture and seaweed and recruit a number of high school students to be hands on throughout the entirety of the process.
"We live in a very unique region," said Good. "We have a lot of extreme weather. We have a lot of shipping and power issues. We're different than anywhere else in the state. And so our idea is that we can build a small farm that we can use for training people who want to build their own privately owned farms, as well as be a training site for students and adults."
In the first year – which is covered by the grant funding – the kelp grown at the farm will be donated to the community and existing seafood processing plants interested in methods like drying or pickling the food-grade seaweed.
Good said they plan to learn a lot from the pilot – like navigating the permitting process, choosing kelp species, and even what kind of anchoring systems they need – before helping establish other aquaculture farms in the region.
"There's no aquaculture that's being done in this region at all currently, but I think there's a lot of interest," said Good. "And I think that if we can help people get started, it could really blossom and it can really help out communities that don't necessarily have a lot of other income."
According to Good, this project could open the door to other aquaculture production, like growing sea urchins, and could be a valuable off-season opportunity for Aleutian fishermen that helps the environment and uses resources already in the communities.
The team is currently working on curriculum development and training. They plan to build the farm site in the summer and fall of next year, plant the kelp and maintain the site through the winter, and then harvest in the spring of 2021. Then, they hope to hand the farm off to community members to continue the project.
The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is offering a special training program for those interested in starting a seaweed farm. The program will be held in Ketchikan, Sitka, and Kodiak in Feb. 2020. The deadline to apply is Dec. 20.