Alaska's fledgling commercial seaweed industry is growing, with producers excited about this year's harvest.
There were no commercial seaweed farmers in Alaska five years ago, though there have long been subsistence seaweed harvests along Alaska coasts. Now, there are 16 aquatic farming operations permitted to culture species of seaweed in the state, said Cynthia Pring-Ham, the aquatic farming coordinator for the Commercial Fisheries Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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Ten of those operations have permits to grow seaweed plus oysters and other shellfish, while six have seaweed-only permits, she said.
According to the World Aquaculture Society, seaweed is a $6 billion business worldwide. Most seaweed is harvested in Korea, Japan and China, dried and used for seasoning.
Blue Evolution, a California-based company at the fore of the developing Alaska's industry, has worked with researchers at the University of Alaska Southeast on ways to farm kelp commercially rather than harvest wild kelp beds, reports the Anchorage Daily News.
Lexa Meyers, who co-owns Kodiak Kelp Co., said the technique involves collecting wild kelp plants and breeding them to produce tiny floating "seeds" that attach themselves to "grow lines" of string farmers suspend in the ocean in late November.
Blue Evolution sells seed stock to some Alaska farmers and buys back the mature kelp. It is processed and sold as a blanched and frozen product, with food service at corporations, colleges and other cafeterias as the main clientele so far.
Meyers and her husband sell to Blue Evolution.
Lia Heifetz co-owns Barnacle Foods, a Juneau company that makes kelp salsas, pickles and other products and has used wild harvested bull kelp. The company has expanded enough to buy commercially farmed kelp from a growing operation near Ketchikan.
"(Our business) gave him the confidence to scale his harvest up," Heifetz said. "No one has a desire to grow kelp and have nowhere to sell it. We're at a scale now it made sense for him to make the jump and be confident we can buy it."
Barnacle plans to buy about 25,000 pounds (11,340 kilograms) of kelp.
Meyers said development of a market will be important for the industry to grow, along with community acceptance.
Meyers believes a growing seaweed industry could be a boon to fishing families. The seaweed harvest cycle occurs when other big fisheries are at a lull. Seaweed is harvested in late April and early May.
"There's not a lot of opportunities for folks to gain income over the winter months," she said. "It's been really nice to see something else creep up."