Alaska's budding mariculture industry is getting a boost from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which on Thursday announced it has plans to identify Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs) in Alaska state waters.

These areas will be selected through engagement with tribes and the public, a process that allows constituents to share their community, tribal and stewardship goals for sustainable aquaculture development in Alaska’s coastal and marine waters, according to NOAA.

"We will only be working in state waters, not federal waters," said Danielle Blacklock, director of NOAA's office of aquaculture, in a press conference call Thursday.

NOAA will only consider marine invertebrates — like shellfish and sea cucumbers — and seaweed farming when identifying the areas. She added finfish farming will not be considered in the process because it is prohibited under Alaska state law.

The fisheries and aquaculture arm of NOAA has already identified 19 sites in areas in the Gulf of Mexico and in Southern California that may be suitable for offshore aquaculture.

Blacklock said, based on experiences working in those US regions to identify areas in federal waters, she anticipates it will take at least three years or potentially longer to identify the sites in Alaska's state waters.

She added the project for NOAA is "high priority," and part of NOAA's strategy for economic and environmental resilience as the country feels the impacts of climate change. NOAA Fisheries will soon solicit public comments as the identification process for the areas moves forward.

“With more coastline than all of the Lower 48 states combined, Alaska is uniquely positioned to benefit from a growing marine aquaculture industry,” said NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit.

Sam Rabung, division director for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) said the state is not interested in permitting in any area "that’s going to create a conflict."

He added NOAA's plans to identify opportunity areas will "be very helpful to both permitting agencies and potential farmers," and should result in "increased economic activity food security" in Alaska.

Andrew Miller, a natural resource manager with Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the aquaculture opportunity areas will help the state reach its goal of having a $100-million mariculture industry by 2040.

Big players in mariculture

There are currently 93 aquatic farming and hatchery permits in the state, according to the ADF&G. However, some of those operation permits are on private land, Karen Cougan, an aquatic farming program coordinator with the state, told IntraFish.

Currently there are 79 aquatic farm leases authorized by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she said.

"There are more ADF&G operation permits than DNR leases that are on state tide and submerged lands," she said.

In 2022, aquaculture production sales in Alaska totaled $1.9 million (€1.8 million), and the state is experiencing an increase in aquaculture permit applications.

Alaska seafood processing giant Trident Seafoods has one permit to farm sugar kelp, bull kelp and ribbon kelp at the Left Hand Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, according to the state agency. State documents show that permit is for 101 acres, located about 14 miles northwest of Sand Point, Alaska.

This is not the first time Trident has attempted to farm kelp in the state. In 2019, it tried to lease 25-acre lease in the Cook Bay area of Kodiak to farm kelp, but the state ultimately decided against the permit, reported the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

Salmon processor Silver Bay Seafoods also has a permit to farm Pacific oysters in Olga Point near Sitka as well as a permit for a Pacific oyster nursery in Sawmill Bay. In 2019, the company told IntraFish it planned to be growing 20 million oysters annually at a proposed 182-acre farm in Sitka, Alaska.

Alaska's remote coastal areas and pristine waters make it an ideal place to farm marine shellfish and aquatic plants, according the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G).

Pacific oysters, littleneck clams, mussels, and aquatic plants such as kelp make up the majority of Alaska's aquatic farm products. Finfish farming is prohibited under state law.

Aquatic farms are located along the vast coastline of Alaska, stretching from the southeast to Kodiak and the Aleutians.

In 1988, the Aquatic Farm Act was signed into law authorizing the commissioner of ADF&G to issue permits for the construction and operation of aquatic farms and hatcheries that would supply aquatic plant or shellfish seed stocks to aquatic farms.

Within ADF&G, the Division of Commercial Fisheries, Aquatic Farming carries out the statutory and regulatory responsibilities of the department pertaining to aquatic farming in Alaska.

The state of Alaska currently provides a ten-year limited property right granted by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for company's to lease and develop the state's tide and submerged lands into a shellfish or aquatic plant farm.