Farming Alaska's Seas

COSMOS COVE — It's 4:30 a.m. and the wake-up alarm screams. There is no escape. There's barely enough room to roll over. Lia Heifetz, Matthew Kern and Clayton Hamilton stumble to their feet in the dank belly of the F/V Dial West. Time to go kelping.

"Kelp has always been a guaranteed catch for us when the fish weren't biting," laughs Heifetz. The crew pulls the anchor and leaves the quiet safety of Cosmos Cove, east of Baranof Island. They scan the opalescent horizon for beds of bullwhip kelp to harvest.

Heifetz and Kern began their business, named Barnacle, more than a year ago out of a common passion for local foods.

"Both of us grew up in Juneau, and many of the activities that we do together are timed with the seasons and are tied to food. Whether it's fishing, foraging or hunting, we end up with a seasonal surplus," Heifetz says. "We put up all of this food to share with friends and family and live off of (it) the rest of the year.

"And one of those foods especially," she smiles, "kelp salsa has been a staple."

Each year, the two would invite friends over for a salsa-making party. When cupboards became crammed, they filled garages.

Today, the couple is commercial "fishing" for 600 pounds of wild bull kelp in Peril Strait. Clayton Hamilton, a fishing friend, volunteered his gillnetter for the overnight expedition. Kern and Heifetz will turn this bounty into dry seasonings, pickles and their favorite — three flavors of bull kelp salsa. Last year, the couple sold out, moving 2,000 units of kelp in just a few days.

"There!" Kern excitedly points to a cluster of green bulbs bobbing on the surface. As the tide falls, an enormous bed of bull kelp is revealed. Their gleaming backs arch out of the channel like sea monsters. The couple anchors down, bundles up and straps knives to their Grundens.

"So, how are we going to do this?" Kern asks. This is their maiden voyage aboard a 35-foot vessel. "We probably should have waited to invite a photographer until we streamlined our process," Heifetz adds as they lower themselves into a wobbling dinghy. Too late.

With sideways sheets of rain pummeling their cheeks, the couple navigates into the kelp thicket.

"Anchor up," Kern shouts. They yank heavy kelp stipes (stalks) aboard to prevent their dinghy from drifting in the swell. For more than an hour, Kern and Heifetz slice stipes and shuttle back and forth to offload totes of kelp to Hamilton aboard the Dial. An intrigued seal pokes its head an arm's length from their bow, watching with giant eyes.

Little is known about managing and harvesting wild kelp. For that reason, the two operate under an experimental permit with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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"Kelp is an important habitat for so many creatures. We want to be practicing sustainable harvesting techniques, and that doesn't mean harvesting extreme volumes of resources," Kern says.

The two regularly exchange information, data and observations with Fish and Game.

"We can make products that are high value but don't require mass amounts of a raw resource," Kern says.

Back and forth, back and forth they go. The whole procession is somewhat comical. Typically, people try and keep kelp out of their fish hold. Barnacle is a serious business, though, and Heifetz and Kern aren't the only entrepreneurs investing in kelp.

Kelp: A win-win-win?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, global production of seaweed and aquatic plants has more than doubled since 2015. Globally, cultivated seaweeds are a $6.6 billion industry that appears to be growing. Seaweed is used in everything from fertilizer and cosmetics to medicine, animal feed and, potentially, biofuel.

It's healthy for humans, too. In fact, the health and nutritional benefits of seaweed have convinced reporters and hipsters to call kelp "the new kale." A peanut has about 15 different minerals and vitamins; a serving of kelp boasts up to 60. Kelp also has one of the highest concentrations of iodine, essential for a healthy thyroid, found in nature.

The benefits go beyond nutrition. As nations look to feed the world, kelp farming is turning heads and inspiring investors. Seaweed packs a high volume of nutrition without requiring much — no freshwater, fertilizer or feed. Additionally, research indicates that when kelp farming is done right, it may actually improve the ecological health of the surrounding waters by buffering ocean acidification, sequestering carbon, creating habitat and absorbing nutrient runoff that can otherwise choke ecosystems.

"There are a lot of environmental benefits, nutritional benefits and economic benefits. It looks like one of those win-win-win type industries," says Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. In 2016, Gov. Bill Walker established the Mariculture Task Force to grow a $1 billion industry within 30 years. Decker is co-chair of that task force and the foundation is researching mariculture opportunity in the state. A comprehensive economic plan should be presented to the governor next spring. So far, opportunity looks promising.

"We have a tremendous amount of space," Decker says. Where Alaska lacks arable land, it shines in coastline. At roughly 35,000 miles, Alaska has more coastline than the lower 48 states combined.

Decker believes that kelp farming dovetails nicely with Alaska culture.

"Kelp grows in the fall and winter and is harvested in the spring. That works really well with our traditional fisheries in the sense that folks are often busy in the summer and not busy in fall, winter and spring months," Decker says. "So it might be a nice adjunct or a way for folks to expand and add on to existing infrastructure."

Big boost in applicants

Alaskans certainly appear interested. This April, the state received an increase in mariculture permit applications. There are only 320 acres of permitted farms in Alaska and the state typically sees around five applications a year. This year, 15 applications were submitted that account for more than 1,000 acres of coastline.

[With state support, mariculture is on the rise in Alaska]

But Alaska is still working out the kinks of monetizing kelp. Permitting begins at $450 for the first acre, $125 per acre after that.

"If those (applications) were all to be permitted, the annual lease payments would mean roughly $150,000 of new money coming into the state," Decker says. "While that's not closing the budget gap by any means, it's certainly something."

Currently, there are no taxes on aquatic farm products at the time of harvest or sale.

Mariculture may be a promising option for rural coastal communities looking to diversify. Erik O'Brien is a fisherman and seaweed farmer in Larsen Bay near Kodiak. He is also the economic development specialist with the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference.

"We have been looking at mariculture for a long time as a means to prop up coastal communities (that) have been challenged by … a lack of access to fishing opportunity," O'Brien says.

This year, O'Brien estimates he pulled about 10,000 pounds of kelp from his farm. Although he faced a number of challenges this season while learning the ropes, he's enthusiastic about improving efficiency in years to come. In May, three new farms harvested seaweed from Alaska's cold waters for the first time.

"This year was very much a pilot-scale level, and a lot was learned. In some cases the production was less than the farmers hoped and in one case it was actually higher," Decker adds. "But folks are not deterred. They are actually invigorated and encouraged. My understanding is that farming is going to continue into the fall and farmers will even expand production."

Adding value from coast to kitchen

Back in Juneau, Kern and Heifetz are donning hats and hairnets to process their green gold. The salsa recipe on the schedule today: Sea Verde. They take turns eagerly dumping freshly harvested bull kelp into their new industrial blender. Today, they plan to process 650 jars of this coastal snack.

"We are a small mom-and-pop shop now," Heifetz says. "But we have a vision and a road map to grow."

An important junction on that road map involves transitioning from wild kelp to farmed kelp.

"We are looking forward to using the wild kelp as a bridge until we are able to buy directly from farmers," Kern explains. "Our hope is that by next year, we will have the market built and products tested. Meanwhile, the farmers will also have their systems in place to grow efficiently and we can come together to bring that kelp to market and both benefit," Kern says.

Kern and Heifetz are working to provide an option for adding value right here in Alaska.

"When it comes to harvesting any resource, we can harvest less of it if we are maximizing the value of it," Heifetz says. "It's about using resources more efficiently, and in Alaska, there is a trend of shipping out raw materials to be processed in other places. And while that may be the easiest thing to do, the value that those resources bring back to the community and the places they are from is not always maximized."

The couple turned the 600 pounds of kelp they harvested in Peril Strait into more than 2,000 jars of kelp salsa in three different flavors, 150 jars of dill pickles and a to-be-determined amount of dried fronds for seasoning packets. Further down the road, they hope to extend their value-add mantra to include other wild and farmed ingredients.

"Just like a fish processor is able to support a lot of fishermen and invest in the infrastructure, marketing and the process of turning fish into fillets and into food, we want to do that with other resources," Heifetz says. "So whether it's berries coming from Hoonah or seaweed that is farmed around the state, we want to be working with farmers and harvesters to be a guaranteed buyer and market."

And who are their buyers?

While Kern and Heifetz want locals to continue stuffing their cupboards with Barnacle salsa, the two are also enthusiastic about bringing Outside money into their home state, beginning with tourists.

"We have over a million people filing through Juneau each year," Kern says. "That's a huge opportunity."

This season, Kern and Heifetz partnered with other local entrepreneurs to build a storefront out of local wood and a salvaged shipping container on South Franklin Street in hopes of tapping into that market.

Building an industry from the bottom up

Developing an Alaska kelp industry has complications as well as promise. For one, farmers need seeds. The state of Alaska requires that seeds be propagated from wild samples within a 50-kilometer radius of the farm. This requirement was set in an effort to prevent negative environmental impacts of introducing foreign seeds. Currently two operating hatcheries supply farmers with seeded lines.

A lab at the University of Alaska Southeast is growing seeds with the support of Blue Evolution, a San Francisco-based company investing in Alaska kelp farming as an opportunity to grow their kelp pasta and seasoning business.

In Ketchikan, Oceans Alaska is a nonprofit hatchery and marine science center that received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop Alaska kelp seeds. They are working with six kelp farmers and hope to successfully develop open-source seeds for Alaskans. They may even branch out to teach farmers how to propagate their own seeded lines.

Most of this year's harvest was purchased by Blue Evolution. Decker is hopeful that moving forward, Alaska's kelp industry leaders will explore the gamut of options.

"The buyer depends on the product you are creating, and certain products are much better for localized products, others are better for a worldwide market and others for a U.S. market. I am hopeful that all of those types of products, local and larger scale, will develop over time as supply develops," Decker says.

Still, there are environmental and management questions that beg for answers. With the Alaska Coastal Management Program no longer in place, how does the state balance competing coastal uses? How expansive should farms be? Are there negative impacts to local ecosystems? How might large-scale seaweed farms impact cultural, recreation or subsistence sites?

Today, mariculture is slowly growing. However, as the state pushes for a billion-dollar industry, these questions may garner more attention. As far as celebrating kelp as a carbon sink or a buffer to mitigate ocean acidification, Oceans Alaska and The Nature Conservancy are partnering to investigate and quantify those environmental benefits.

"There are economic challenges associated with operating a business of any kind in coastal Alaska," Decker says. "There is the high cost of energy, the high cost of transportation and a lack of workforce because small communities are spread out and disconnected. But the seafood industry has those challenges as well and has managed to overcome those."

According to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in 2014, Alaska's seafood industry was worth more than $6 billion and provided 60,000 jobs.  If Alaska was a country, it would rank in the top 10 for seafood production. Some of that success, Decker hopes, will help ignite a prosperous mariculture industry by providing existing infrastructure, fishing boats, an interested workforce and marketing savvy. Additionally, fish processing plants often sit idle during peak kelp cultivation season.

Despite the challenges, Alaskans appear enthusiastic. There are benefits to building an industry from infancy, and Alaskans can fully explore their options early on.

For Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern, growing the ideal kelp industry is about more than marketing Alaska's resources globally. It is also about living locally.

"Building businesses and prosperous industries in a remote state like Alaska isn't simple; we are up against some fairly substantial odds," Heifetz says. But like their business' namesake 'Barnacle,' Kern and Heifetz are firmly and stubbornly rooted to Southeast Alaska's shores. "For us, success is about making a sustainable home here. It's about overcoming economic challenges, innovating and finding opportunities that complement our lifestyle and celebrate our unique culture."