Econ 919 — Seward's mariculture facility
Some of the creatures at the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute look right out of a science fiction movie.
There are geoduck, a species of large saltwater clam; abalone, a kind of marine snail; and sea cucumbers, which look exactly how they sound.
Jeff Hetrick, the facility’s mariculture director, will tell you they’re pretty ugly. But they could serve a practical purpose, as well.
“It’s a highly prized animal," he said. "Their populations are being diminished. So we’re developing the techniques to either do sea cucumber for aquatic farming or perhaps do enhancement projects for the dive fisheries in Southeast Alaska.”
Hetrick is in the business of mariculture, or the farming and enhancement of seaweed and shellfish.
It’s a budding industry in Alaska. This month, a coalition of Alaska’s economic districts hit send on a final-round application for $50 million in federal funding to boost mariculture statewide. The state has a goal of turning it into a $100 million industry by 2040.
Alutiiq Pride has been at it for three decades. The facility was founded in the wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill to support Alaska’s coastal indigenous communities and today is owned by a tribal consortium, the Chugach Regional Resources Commission.
“In fact, it was the folks in the Lower Cook Inlet, Homer area that really insisted on having research done," Hetrick said. "The idea was that you would develop the technology through research components. And then once that was developed, you could move it into a different part for mass production.”
Hetrick and the Alutiiq team have a lot of knowledge to share with budding mariculture businesses. At their facility — a part-lab, part-aquarium-looking space next to Resurrection Bay — they test ocean conditions and create highly concentrated algae cultures.
Their bread and butter is their shellfish enhancement program. One of nearly a dozen tanks in the hatchery’s main room holds a small army of tiny bivalves.
"These are soft shell clams from Resurrection Bay that will go back out there in the spring," Hetrick said. "They’re really healthy. Look how nice those are.”
Alutiiq Pride uses its shellfish stock as seed in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound.
Some native clam species in Resurrection Bay, for example, have been dying off, which has impacted the communities that rely on them for food. In the controlled setting of the lab, Hetrick can monitor other types of clam species to see how they do.
Alutiiq already does clam restoration work in Lower Cook Inlet. The Seldovia Village Tribe is one of the beneficiaries of that program.
The tribe’s Environmental Assistant Stephen Payton said every year, the institute visits Seldovia to collect area butter clams and steamers and take them back to Seward, where they raise them at the facility.
“And we seed ‘em out on beaches that either still have some clam population left but are kind of floundering, or areas that used to have clams and don’t anymore," Payton said. "Basically traditional harvest areas, just trying to bring the population back up.”
He said that’s important for the community's subsistence harvests and food security. With clam abundance declining in Kachemak Bay and more restrictions from the state on harvesting, residents like Payton and his family are left with fewer opportunities.
Subsistence mariculture is one part of the picture. Commercial mariculture, too, is growing in Southeast, Kodiak and in communities across Kachemak Bay like Seldovia.
“Actually, I’ve been interested in getting a farm going here in Seldovia Bay," Payton said. "And I know of other people in town that are, too.”
Payton said Alutiiq Pride can be an important resource for new mariculture farmers, with the niche institutional knowledge and resources it brings to the table.
Hetrick said that knowledge sharing is a two-way street.
“We rely heavily on those folks to tell us which beaches are the most productive ones and where we should go to look for rootstock and that sort of stuff," Hetrick said. "They call it TEK, ‘traditional ecological knowledge.’ And so we lean heavily on that for what we do.”
Hetrick has been watching mariculture’s rise since he became director of the facility in 2002. And he said progress has been slow.
There are hurdles that make it hard on new farmers to get started, like the extensive permitting process and the need for a healthy boost of private capital.
But behind the beakers and tanks in the facility, in a small room at the back of the warehouse, there’s a reminder of mariculure’s commercial potential: boxes full of value-added products like kelp sauce and kelp popcorn. And Hetrick is a true believer.
“No one’s really taken that big leap yet into a full-fledged, big operation," Hetrick said. "But you look around, what’s going around with mariculture, shellfish aquaculture, kelp farming — it’s huge.”
As more farmers get into the business, he said his institute will be there to share important knowledge, advice and the occasional sea cucumber for good measure.