Aquaculture Planning to Boost Alaska Economy
Federal and state agencies are embarking on a three-year process to identify Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs) where Alaska waters would be opened to new permits for farming marine resources.
Careful Consultation with Communities
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced June 1 they will engage those who would be affected by opening state waters, up to three nautical miles off the coast. The consultation process comes after three previous years of planning.
“It is important to note that we are only talking about marine invertebrates like shellfish, sea cucumbers, as well as seaweed farming,” says Danielle Blacklock, director of NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture. “Finfish farming is prohibited in Alaska by law and will not be considered in this process.”
Alaska is one of three regions being considered for AOAs along with Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico, she says.
According to NOAA, aquaculture production sales in Alaska totaled $1.9 million in 2022, and the state is experiencing an increase in aquaculture permit applications. The state has a goal to increase that to $100 million by 2040, says Andrew Miller, who oversees aquatic farm leasing as natural resource manager for DNR.
Aside from the economic boost, agencies see aquaculture as a way to counteract the effects of global warming. “Marine aquaculture is part of the NOAA Fisheries’ strategy for economic and environmental resilience in coastal communities and supports healthy oceans,” Blacklock says. “In a changing climate, aquaculture is a critical component of sustainable food systems, marine habitats, and coastal economies.”
NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center Strategic Plan for 2023 to 2027 is to engage with university, state, tribal, and industry groups to identify and pursue collaborative aquaculture research projects. The location and size of these areas will also be shaped through a public process that provides multiple opportunities for the public to share their tribal, community, and stewardship goals.
In a 2020 comment period, Blacklock says NOAA received letters of support from Alaska Native organizations, ADF&G, Governor Mike Dunleavy, members of the Alaska Legislature, and industry and research institutes. Last year, the governor signed a new law that expands permitting for farming crab, razor clams, or abalone.
Sam Rabung, director of ADF&G’s commercial fisheries division, says none of the state’s waters are off limits for AOAs, but agencies will look at existing users to identify possible conflicts in site selection. “We are not interested in creating conflict,” Rabung says. “We want to identify conflicts in advance.”
Miller adds that not all Alaska waters are suitable for aquaculture.
Funding for the consultation phase will vary. “We will work with our existing budget and lean heavily on NOAA,” says Rabung of ADF&G, and Miller says DNR will use its existing staff and budget. The legislature also made a $5 million matching grant available, and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council budgeted more than $25 million for mariculture research. The federal government also has a $49 million grant cluster available.
For Alaskans who want to dive into aquaculture production, the identification of AOAs does not mean a site is preapproved, and applicants still have to submit to state and federal permit processes.