Alaskan aquaculture industry in a period of growth

So says NOAA Fisheries, which has just released its '2023 Aquaculture Accomplishments Report'. "Many local, state and federal efforts are focused on supporting this developing industry."
Harvesting Alaskan kelp at Sea Quester Farms. Seaweed is one of the most promising species in the Alaskan aquaculture industry. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.
Harvesting Alaskan kelp at Sea Quester Farms. Seaweed is one of the most promising species in the Alaskan aquaculture industry. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

In its goal to foster scientific research and economic development that can sustainably drive the growth of the Alaskan aquaculture industry, NOAA Fisheries continues its Alaska Aquaculture Program, which recently released its '2023 Aquaculture Accomplishments Report'. "The Alaskan aquaculture industry is in a period of growth, and many local, state and federal efforts are focused on supporting this developing industry," notes the Alaska Regional Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Aquaculture can be beneficial for Alaska

Alaska is one of the fishing states par excellence in the United States, however, as NOAA points out, this does not exclude supporting the aquaculture industry or, more specifically, mariculture in its waters. "Aquaculture can be beneficial both to local communities and the environment, boosting coastal economies and providing habitat to marine organisms," the Agency states.

Thus, although finfish farming is illegal in State waters, other species such as Pacific oysters, kelp, and blue mussels can be farmed in Alaska without competing with fisheries. Therefore, the NOAA Alaska Regional Office and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center continue to coordinate efforts to support and develop this growing industry in the area.

During 2023, the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Aquaculture Program participated in 14 projects that prioritized 10 of the 17 national goals listed in the 2023-2028 Aquaculture Strategic Plan. The Agency noted that they all aligned with NOAA's 2023-2028 Aquaculture Strategic Plan and, in addition, all supported three of the national aquaculture strategic goals such as managing sustainably and efficiently, leading science for sustainability, and educating and sharing information.

While all of these projects pursue the goal of promoting sustainable aquaculture growth in Alaska's state waters, the 14 are diverse in scope and design – they can be viewed in detail here. In addition, the '2023 Aquaculture Accomplishments Report' also provides an update on other industry accomplishments over the past year.

Alaska Aquaculture Program Highlights

Of those 14 projects, the Agency highlights three in particular in its report of accomplishments. The first of these is the assessment of the habitat provisioning potential of kelp aquaculture farms in Alaska. In it, NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) Kodiak lab is collaborating with local farmers to investigate how farmed kelp compares to natural kelp beds as a habitat for local marine animal species.

This, they say, will help clarify the extent to which seaweed aquaculture provides habitat for local Alaskan species. In addition, the information gathered will also help determine the merits of locating kelp farms in state waters.

The second project of note in 2023 is a selective oyster farming program. Established at NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Auke Bay Laboratories, located at the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute (TSMRI) in Juneau, it is intended to address the Alaska oyster industry's current reliance on seed oysters spawned outside of the State, and the resulting shortage of hatchery seed supply and the insecurity that causes for oyster farmers.

Researchers have begun construction of a hatchery to house, condition, and spawn oyster broodstock and subsequent generations that they hope will address scientific barriers and identify the cost-effectiveness of producing larvae and seed optimized for growth in Alaska.

Optimism for the future possibilities of Alaskan aquaculture

Developing a portfolio of marine spatial analysis data for aquaculture development in Alaska is the third project highlighted by NOAA in its '2023 Aquaculture Accomplishments Report'. In June 2023, the Agency announced the selection of Alaska as the next region to begin the process of identifying Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs).

Defined as a geographic area that has been evaluated from an environmental, social, and economic standpoint to determine its potential suitability for commercial aquaculture, NOAA uses a combination of scientific analysis and public participation, which in the case of Alaska also includes tribes, to determine an AOA.

The data collected during the AOA process – both from stakeholders, members of the public, tribal communities, state and federal agencies, and other organizations – will lay the foundation for future Site Suitability Analyses and the development of Atlases as part of the Alaska AOA identification process.

NOAA Fisheries' optimism about the future possibilities for the Alaskan aquaculture is evident in the closing sentence of the report's release. "The new 2023 Aquaculture Accomplishments Report is revelatory not only by showing what the Alaska Aquaculture Program has accomplished over the last year, but also how much work is still underway," they say.

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