Could mariculture morph into a billion-dollar industry for Alaska?

[USA] Shellfish, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams, seaweeds and biofuels are crops envisioned by a group of Alaskans crafting a framework for a statewide mariculture industry expansion.

An 11-member task force created last February by Gov. Bill Walker is working towards putting a comprehensive report on Walker’s desk by next March. The group, which has been meeting regularly, also has attracted interest from Alaskans who want to serve on advisory committees.

Those include research and development, the environment, regulatory issues, investment and infrastructure, workforce development and public education and marketing.

“I get several calls a week from interested parties,” said Barbara Blake, a Walker aide focused on the task force. “People are charged up for this. It’s a new concept that allows our communities to engage in a way that allows them to maintain their residence in our rural coastal regions. Everyone participating is really committed to developing something that will be beneficial for the entire state.”

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski also has gotten onboard with the hiring of Charlotte Regula-White, a marine biologist who will be the senator’s mariculture specialist.

Globally, shellfish and seaweeds add up to a multibillion dollar industry. Alaska already has much of the infrastructure in place from the seafood industry and hatchery programs. Task force member Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, believes mariculture could be $1 billion Alaska industry for the state in less than 30 years.

At a Feb. 17 meeting in Juneau, the task force will get an update on a U.S. Department of Energy grant program that moves mariculture into the macroalgae biofuel sector.

“It not only contributes to small operations in our coastal communities, there also are huge benefits by it being a green industry and cleaning our oceans,” said Boxer. “There are not any downsides to it.”

Fish board considers Cook Inlet

One of the year’s biggest fish gatherings occurs in two weeks when the Alaska Board of Fisheries meets to sort out Upper Cook Inlet issues with often-fractious groups of salmon users.

The Fish Board sets policy and catch limits for the state’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries. It will consider 174 proposals at the Anchorage meeting.

The event will attract a sizeable audience and many are unfamiliar with the process, said board executive director Glenn Haight. To that end, an informal, one-hour lunch meeting on the first day will run people through the ropes.

“We’ll walk through the Board of Fish process, the terms, how it moves from staff reports to public testimony to committees and deliberations,” Haight said. “We’ll tell them how to provide more effective testimony, how to speak to board members and make a strong impact.”

When you have three minutes to make your case in public testimony, you need to make an impression.

“It’s important to plan that out,” Haight added. “And if you’re going to come back and participate in any of the committees, that is the time to save your really detailed discussions. It’s a valuable opportunity for the board to hear from as many people as possible.”

The Fish Board meets Feb. 23 – March 8 at the Anchorage Sheraton. The meetings are live-streamed on the web.

Vacuum invaders

Warming Alaska waters are luring all kinds of unusual creatures — and some of the smallest can be big troublemakers.

In the eastern Gulf of Alaska, for example, tiny filter feeders called salps are appearing in large numbers. The gelatinous, jet-propelled tubes can asexually bud off clones at a rapid rate. They then form long feeding chains that graze on the phytoplankton and rob it of the microscopic crustaceans, larvae and nutrients so important to small fish.

“Just the fact that they are here is different,” said Wesley Strasburger, chief survey scientist for the eastern Gulf, based at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay lab in Juneau.

Salp blooms were first spotted in eastern waters about five years ago and their numbers jumped in 2015, based on samples taken in tiny mesh surface trawl surveys 100-200 miles miles offshore. Strasburger said salps also made up a big part of many small fish diets.

“Juvenile pink salmon, chums, sockeye, juvenile rockfishes and juvenile sablefishes were all eating these salps. That is not typical, and their regular diets seem to have been at least in part displaced by these salps,” he said.

Photo: Geoduck clams. (Getty Images)

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