Biden administration pledges $500K to design new mariculture facility on Prince of Wales Island

People in a boat with tubs of kelp
Nick Mangini’s crew pictured from above following harvest. Tamsen Peeples far right. (Kayla Desroches/KMXT)

Southeast Alaska’s seaweed and shellfish industry is in line to receive a boost from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that it would provide $500,000 in funding to draw up plans for a new mariculture processing facility on Prince of Wales Island. Producers and processors are welcoming the news.

USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small said the initiative goes hand-in-hand with the Biden administration’s plans for new economic opportunity in an area that’s been in transition as the timber industry shrinks.

“It’s a great opportunity for economic diversification,” Torres Small said in a phone interview Friday. “And one of the things I love about this project is it really is driven by partners on the ground.”

She credited Southeast Conference, a regional civic and industry group, with the idea. Executive Director Robert Venables said the investment will go to good use.

“It’s come to the forefront that a facility can help especially the smaller entities have a place to do processing, storage, shipping, aggregating, any number of things,” he said. “But they don’t have the means to do their own individual construction of facilities.”

Venables said the idea is to create a co-op facility that would be shared by a number of mariculture firms.

Mathew Scaletta owns Wildfish Cannery in Klawock, which he describes as a “craft seafood cannery.” Scaletta said Wildfish isn’t canning mariculture products at the moment, but they’re looking to get into the sector.

“We are hoping to be a value-added producer for mariculture products. Part of our business plan going into the future is to work more of these products into our lineup,” he said.

It’s all very preliminary, but Scaletta said he could see his company adding five to 10 jobs by expanding their business to the new facility.

Markos Scheer runs Seagrove Kelp, a mariculture outfit with a nursery in Ketchikan and a seaweed farm on the west side of Prince of Wales Island. He also chairs Southeast Conference’s Seafood and Maritime Committee.

“This, I think, represents part of a really interesting and terrific paradigm shift and an opportunity for sustainable economic development for coastal communities,” Scheer said Friday by phone.

Venables said the $500,000 federal boost will pay for engineering and design work, community engagement, utility work and other prep to get ready for construction. He said Southeast Conference is planning to help tap into funding from the recently-passed federal infrastructure bill to help make the facility happen.

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