NOAA seeks to delineate Alaska aquaculture areas

NOAA Fisheries has chosen Alaska as the next region to search Aquaculture opportunity areas, following planning already underway off the southern coast of California and in the Gulf of Mexico.

An Aquaculture Opportunity Area is a defined geographic area that NOAA has determined to be environmentally, socially, and economically appropriate to support multiple commercial aquaculture operations. NOAA also assesses these areas through spatial analysis and the National Environmental Policy Act process. Sustainable marine aquaculture, also known in Alaska as mariculture, currently helps support Alaska’s blue economy by contributing to sustainable fisheries and local economies.

The effort to identify opportunity areas for aquaculture will focus on Alaska state waters based on feedback from stakeholders, tribes, and current industry interest. NOAA will only consider shellfish and kelp farming; Fish farming in Alaska state waters is prohibited by law. With more coastline than all of the lower 48 states combined, Alaska is uniquely positioned to benefit from the growth of the marine aquaculture industry.

“Selecting Alaska to begin the process of identifying aquaculture opportunities Areas supports the long-term goals for both NOAA and the state of Alaska, and strengthens our federal and state partnership,” said NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator Jon Kurland. “We look forward to working with our state partners to increase seafood production from aquaculture, which has significant growth potential in the future.”

NOAA Fisheries held a 60-day public comment period, which included holding five listening sessions, in late 2020. Alaska received more letters of support than any other region. Individuals, industry, research institutions, Alaska Native organizations, and the Speaker of the House of the Alaska Legislature submitted public comments in support of the AOAs. We also received comments in support of future AOAs for shellfish and kelp in Alaska from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Governor Dunleavy. NOAA received no comments opposing considering AOA in state waters.

The Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute is a tribally managed marine research facility located in Seward, Alaska, and serves as a major subsidiary of the Chugach Regional Resources Commissiona tribal consortium for Native peoples of south central Alaska who submitted a letter of support for AOA identification in Alaska.

“Economic development and management of local shellfish stocks through mariculture has been a priority for the Chugach Regional Resources Commission’s Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute for over three decades. We look forward to sharing our experience with the AOA process.” “said CEO Willow Hetrick-Price.

“The timing of NOAA’s decision to select Alaska is perfect,” said Julie Decker, past chair of the Alaska Mariculture Working Group. “A large coalition of partners in Alaska recently received a $49 million Build Back Better grant from the Economic Development Administration to support the growth of mariculture. NOAA’s work to consider AOAs will complement and build on this investment. These are exciting times in Alaska!”

Aquaculture operators now farm shellfish, algae, sea cucumbers, and urchins along the coast in southeastern, southcentral, and southwestern Alaska. Graphic from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Alaska currently has 92 active aquatic farm and hatchery operating permits, including the largest kelp farm in the United States. The state’s aquatic farms grow shellfish, algae, sea cucumbers, and urchins, and are located along the coast in southeastern, southcentral, and southwestern Alaska.

In recent years, Alaska has seen a significant increase in aquatic farm applications and desired acreage. The number of acres allowed increased from less than 350 in 2016 to almost 1,300 in 2022, or an approximate 271 percent increase in 6 years. In 2022, sales of aquaculture production in Alaska totaled $1.9 million. But there is still room to grow.

He Alaska Mariculture Development Plan identified the goal of grow $100 million from the mariculture industry in 20 years. The Alaska Mariculture Alliance, with 130 members statewide, was established to promote and support a strong and sustainable mariculture industry for Alaska. It is the successor organization to the Alaska Mariculture Task Force and has adopted the Alaska Mariculture Development Plan as its guiding document. NOAA Fisheries has served in both groups.

“We are excited that Alaska has been selected for AOA identification,” said AMA Executive Director Jason Lessard. “The value that aquaculture will bring to our coastal communities through economic opportunity and food security cannot be underestimated. The work that NOAA will provide during this process will be a tremendous asset to Alaska as we continue to develop this industry in a responsible and forward-thinking manner.”

Alaska recently received nearly $100 million in funding to support the growth of the aquaculture industry through the Build Back Better Mariculture Cluster Project, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, and other state and federal contributions. Through the AOA identification process, NOAA will actively engage with the aquaculture stakeholder community. We will provide the necessary spatial analysis, environmental review, and take advantage of other investments that are being made in Alaska.

NOAA has a variety of proven, science-based tools and strategies that can be used to consider how and where to develop aquaculture sustainably. Aquaculture farms can complement wild capture fisheries, provide ecosystem services, and be compatible with other human uses of the oceans while minimizing environmental impacts. They will also further the development of our nation’s seafood processing and distribution infrastructure.

NOAA Fisheries research activities for Alaskan aquaculture have included oysters, kelp, sea cucumber, pinto abalone, vane scallops, and blue and red king crab. from NOAA Ted Stevens Institute of Marine Research in Juneau and the NOAA Kodiak Laboratory at Kodiak provide good research bases to support the identification of AOA in Alaska. Both sites have staff, small vessels, and analytical laboratory space available for aquaculture-related research, as well as ongoing research partnerships with algae and shellfish farmers in each region.

The identification of AOAs is an opportunity for proactive management to use the best available science-based guidance on sustainable aquaculture management. Aquaculture in AOAs will support environmental, economic and social sustainability. This approach has been refined and widely used within states and by other countries with robust and sustainable aquaculture sectors.

Marine aquaculture is part of NOAA Fisheries’ strategy for economic and environmental resilience in coastal communities and support for healthy oceans. Aquaculture is resilient to many effects of climate change and offers mitigation and adaptation benefits.

The size and location of AOAs will be investigated through spatial analysis, indigenous knowledge, and public participation. This will allow NOAA and the State of Alaska to identify areas suitable for commercial aquaculture. from NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Sciences will provide spatial planning support for Alaska AOA planning. Spatial planning will use whole ecosystem spatial modeling methods aimed at capturing the best available data and stakeholder input. While the AOA identification can help applicants with site selection and environmental analysis, it is not a pre-approval for any location. Applicants will still have to go through all the state and federal permitting processes.

NOAA chose federal waters off Southern California and in the Gulf of Mexico in 2020 to begin the AOA identification process. We are now moving forward in Alaska state waters after considering input from the public, tribes, and stakeholders and evaluating available resources. We will continue to identify new geographic areas nationwide as resources allow.

The State of Alaska will be a critical partner with NOAA in design and identify appropriate locations for AOAs. These areas will be shaped through a public process that provides multiple opportunities for constituents to share their tribal, community, and stewardship goals, as well as critical viewpoints. NOAA Fisheries hopes to solicit public comment in Alaska soon on the development of the geographic study areas.