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New programs fertilizing growth in seaweed industry

Kelp farming is growing in Alaska.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Kelp farming is growing in Alaska.

Seaweed has the potential to become big business in Alaska. Though still in its infancy, the amount of training, technical help and other support available could nurture this growing sector of mariculture into a multi-million-dollar industry in the state.

But not without challenges. Skye Steritz and Sean Den Adel are first-year kelp farmers, owners of Nobel Ocean Farms in Cordova.

“It is truly very challenging. While it’s fun, it’s also intense and it is not cheap. The estimates that were publicly available to us when we started this journey about what it may cost to become a kelp farmer were about three times lower than what we have already spent to get into this and to start our business and launch our kelp farm," Steritz said. "In addition to our day jobs, we are putting in about 30 hours a week into kelp farming and figuring out all the different components of this nascent industry and how to navigate them.”

Noble Ocean Farms is part of the first wave of the industry in Alaska, helping calm the waters for more entrepreneurs to come.

Mariculture — growing marine organisms in a marine environment — has mostly meant shellfish farming in Alaska, since marine finfish farming is illegal in the state. Melissa Good, with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says commercial seaweed is growing exponentially. In 2021, there were over 536,000 pounds of seaweed sold in Alaska, more than double 2020.

“The Alaska mariculture development plan that was published in 2018 set a goal to grow the industry to $100 million per year within 20 years. So, 20 years being 2038, though there’s projected growth even after that. And a big part of that growth is seaweed,” Good said.

Sea Grant coordinates research and training opportunities, helps establish pilot farms and helped launch an Alaska aquaculture permitting portal. And they’re just one of the entities helping fertilize commercial seaweed Alaska.

Lindsay Olsen, of Homer, is with GreenWave, a bi-coastal industry support organization. Starting April 19, GreenWave is launching the Ocean Farming Hub, designed to help anyone interested in starting and running a kelp farm or hatchery. It’ll include training videos and technical help from permitting to planting to processing. There’s even a tool for helping plan out a farm for the first time.

“You can use this tool to input data about your site, such as the depth, the bottom type, the current speed. If you know the type of gear you want to use, you can put that in," Olsen said. "And then there is a modeling software that will essentially build you a farm diagram of what the farm would look like to match the specifications that you outlined. And it will also give you some startup costs and a basic gear list and a price tag.”

For established farmers, there’s a directory of farms and what crops they grow and a way for buyers to connect. There’s also going to be an online community.

That’s exactly the sort of support Steritz thinks is needed for new businesses.

“There’s certainly a lot to figure out and I don’t believe that anyone can do it alone. I’m really grateful that there is a grass-roots movement here in Alaska to support mariculture,” Steritz said.

Their farm is permitted for 22 acres but in their first year they’re only using a tenth of that, with 18 grow lines in the water. They’ll harvest this spring, then go collect spores of fertile wild kelp in the summer and take them to the Alutiiq Pride hatchery in Seward. Once big enough, they’ll be planted in the water next fall. They plan on doubling their farm every year and hope to find markets in Alaska.

Anyone curious about wading into the commercial kelp market can check out GreenWave and Sea Grant.

Jenny Neyman has been the general manager of KDLL since 2017. Before that she was a reporter and the Morning Edition host at KDLL.
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