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Researchers turn focus to mariculture

Courtesy of Chris Sannito

Alaska has an ambitious goal — turn its growing mariculture business into a $100 million industry by 2040.

It has a long way to go. But federal and state agencies are taking steps toward making products like seaweed and shellfish easier to grow and market.

Marine research organization Alaska Sea Grant will spend the next two years investigating how to better preserve kelp to make commercial ready-to-eat products, using a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sea Grant is looking into a technology called high-pressure processing. It uses pressurized water to knock out pathogens, like E. coli, and preserve food for longer,

“It’s really a growing way of food preservation that’s starting to catch on," said Chris Sannito, seafood technology specialist with Sea Grant. "More and more products in the supermarket are processed this way.”

Currently, seaweed is cleaned through steam blanching — the same method you might use to preserve your vegetables.

High-pressure processing, on the other hand, can triple a product’s shelf life and is used to preserve all sorts of food products, from grocery store guacamole to juices.

“The bacteria are kind of squeezed down and, at a certain pressure, they cannot survive that," Sannito said.

But it’s expensive. That’s where the USDA money comes in.

Sea Grant will send seafood products to a research facility that already has high-pressure processing equipment in Erlanger, Ky. There, researchers can conduct kitchen tests and shelf-life studies on seaweed products to make sure the technology works.

The study is part of a concerted push to bolster the mariculture business in Alaska.

Mariculture is the farming and enhancement of seaweed and shellfish. Right now, that industry is largely kelp and oysters, including 13 shellfish farms in Kachemak Bay. NOAA valued Alaska’s mariculture industry at $1.4 million in 2019.

Sannito is based in Kodiak, where he said there’sa lot of interest in kelp. 

“Mainly from fishermen that are looking to diversify their year," he said. "And seaweed is kind of nice because you’re able to plan it out in the fall and then harvest it usually before the busy summer season starts.”

There are also several registered kelp farmers across Kachemak Bay, according to a mariculture map from Alaska Ocean Observing Systems. Others dot the coastline along Prince William Sound. 

Sannito said the high-pressure processing process is exciting, in part, because it doesn’t add anything to the food or change it in any way. That’s in contrast with other methods of preservation, like adding heat or acid. 

“This is a very high-tech approach to creating products very wholesomely, so we’re not adding anything," he said. "We’re just using the laws of physics to preserve food.”

He said there are some Alaskans already turning seaweed into value-added products. Barnacle Foods in Juneau makes seasonings and hot sauce from kelp. Sannito is working with Taco Loco in Anchorage to develop seaweed tortillas.

Still, mariculture is a relatively new industry in Alaska. And a big challenge, advocates say, is permitting.

That hurdle was outlined in a recent report, created by the Alaska Mariculture Task Force. Gov. Bill Walker convened that task force in 2016 to turn Alaska mariculture into big business.

NOAA Fisheries, with Alaska Sea Grant, just released a 40-page documentand databasedetailing the permitting process for new mariculture farmers. NOAA said it hopes those resources will reduce that barrier for burgeoning growers .

Sea Grant’s funding for the processing project is through the USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

Six other Alaska applicants won grant money through that program this year, including the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. The district plans to work with aging and disabled farmers on new ways to grow strawberries — a perennial crop whose harvest can be hard on farmers’ bodies. District Manager  Kyra Wagner said the district will work with farmers to develop alternative methods of growing strawberries, like towers, and will install successful project designs in Homer and at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in Soldotna.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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