Alaska’s economic development districts are in the running to win $50 million in federal money to grow the state’s seaweed and shellfish farming industry, known collectively as mariculture.
The U.S. Economic Development Administration announced this week that the proposed mariculture project is among 60 finalists for a Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant. Advocates say the money could help with the state’s goal of building a $100 million industry by 2040.
More kelp and oyster farms have been popping up along Alaska’s shorelines in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration valued Alaska’s mariculture industry at $1.4 million in 2019.
But the industry still has a long way to go.
“Where we stand right now is, for the most part, we’re more of a cottage industry than a full-blown industry,” said Tim Dillon, who directs the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.
He said a lot of the mariculture action in Alaska is playing out in Southeast.
In Southcentral, it’s mostly concentrated on the far side of Kachemak Bay. Dillon said he sees potential for producers hailing from other parts of the Kenai Peninsula — and Alaska — as well.
“It depends on who wants to play,” he said. “And we want to make sure we’re there to help. And one of the big issues and things we’re working on is to find out, how much money do you think you need to go from A to C? And whether that investment is worth it or not.”
Every finalist for the Build Back Better grant — including the Alaska mariculture cluster — gets $500,000. Dillon said they’ll use that money to further flesh out their goals for the project.
The final grant proposal is due in March. The 20 to 30 finalists who pass through that second phase can get up to $100 million to support industries in their regions.
The grant money comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID-19 relief stimulus package passed by the feds earlier this year. The Alaska project clocks in at around $50 million.
The Kenai Peninsula district’s counterpart in Southeast Alaska, Southeast Conference, is the project’s lead.
Executive director Robert Venables said a big hurdle facing producers now is the small size of the industry, particularly when it comes to marketing and selling a final product.
“It’s kind of an awkward stage of things right now where there’s a lot of small businesses scattered around coastal Alaska and they don’t have economies of scale to really take that big leap forward,” he said. “And so this will help them with supply and infrastructure in order to step up, throw in the workforce component and develop the markets and, all of a sudden, you add an element to our economy that simply does not exist today.”
One area for growth outlined in the project proposal is workforce development. Dillon says mariculture jobs could help balance the decline of other industries in Alaska’s coastal communities, like commercial fishing.
Bringing more of the industry into the public eye is also a priority. Dillon said he’s still learning himself, from experts at the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute in Seward and other scientists around the state.
“I didn’t know what a FLUPSY was a year ago,” he said. “That’s the equipment they use for oysters for going from seed to spat to eventually oysters.”
The mariculture program was one of nearly 530 applicants to the Build Back Better program.
Another Alaska project is a finalist for the grant, too. That project, proposed by nonprofit Spruce Root, would support more sustainable forest development in Southeast as an alternative to the region’s logging economy.