Alaska wary of federal push for marine aquaculture

Cooke Aquaculture’s Atlantic salmon farm near Bainbridge Island, Washington. (Photo courtesy Washington Department of Natural Resources)

The U.S. has a seafood trade deficit. The Trump administration’s answer is to promote aquaculture in federal waters. That’s alarmed some who see this as a threat to Alaska’s longstanding ban on fish farms.

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During a recent stop in Juneau, NOAA Fisheries chief Chris Oliver said that wild seafood harvests alone can’t keep up with rising global demand.

But there’s another way.

“Aquaculture is going to be where the major increases in seafood production occur whether it happens in foreign countries or in United States waters,” Oliver told a room of fishermen, seafood marketing executives and marine scientists.

Aquaculture is a broad term: it’s farming in the sea. That could be shellfish like oysters or seaweed which Alaska permits. But it also includes fish farms — which Alaska does not allow.

The nation’s federal waters are vast. They begin three miles offshore and extend 200 nautical miles. There isn’t any aquaculture in federal waters — yet.

Acting U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce Timothy Gallaudet said during a Juneau visit that streamlining regulations and boosting aquaculture production – both part of the Commerce Department’s 2018-2022 strategic plan – could help change that.

“As we look to the ocean to continue to support human society, aquaculture is going to be a growing factor,” Gallaudet said.

There’s a bill pending in the U.S. Senate that could decide how federal aquaculture is regulated. It’s being backed by an industry group called Stronger America Through Seafood.

Campaign Manager Margaret Henderson said Alaska’s ability to ban offshore fish farms remains a sticking point on Capitol Hill.

“We in no way mean to impede a state’s authority to manage their own waters,” Henderson said in an interview. “But when it comes to managing federal waters outside the state line we think that there’s a balance to be had there, that there’s there’s room for both.”

The state is well aware that its ban on offshore finfish farming is at stake.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to fight pretty hard to maintain the state’s opt-out option and maintain the ability to prohibit finfish farming off of Alaska,” Sam Rabung, chief of Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s aquaculture division, said.

There are two main arguments against finfish farming.

One is environmental: farmed fish can escape, like what happened last year in Washington State, when hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon broke free from their pen and traveled miles up rivers in the Pacific Northwest

The other argument is economic.

“If you increase supply, prior to increasing demand or without the effort to increase demand, your prices drop,” Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, said.

Decker recalled how in the 1980s, Alaska was the largest salmon producer. That changed, she said, when cheap farmed salmon entered the market.

“The end of the salmon story at this stage is there’s millions more people eating salmon, than they were back in 1980,” Decker said. “But it was a very painful adjustment period.”

Federal commerce officials heard about that from Verner Wilson III. He grew up on Bristol Bay but now works for Friends of the Earth, which co-authored a letter to lawmakers opposing the aquaculture bill.

“The flooding of farmed salmon in the 1990s created so much hurt and pain for my family and Alaska salmon fishermen throughout the state from Bristol Bay right here to Juneau,” Wilson said.

Gallaudet said offshore fish farms wouldn’t be imposed on Alaska.

But in his pitch for aquaculture he alluded to the elephant in the room: climate change.

“Some of the changes in the environment are affecting fish stocks,” Gallaudet said. “They are either moving or they’re not thriving and so this aquaculture, done the right way and scientifically based, provides a means for employment of fishermen who are losing some of their gain through these changing conditions.”

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office said he supports Alaska’s right to opt out.

“He will not support any legislation that endangers our world class fisheries or negatively impacts Alaska’s robust seafood industry,” Sullivan’s spokesman Mike Anderson wrote in a statement. “Further, any federal legislation he would support must respect Alaska’s current prohibition.”

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski hasn’t taken a position.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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