Alaska’s Sweet New Cash Crop

erin-laughlinBY ERIN LAUGHLIN
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

The next time you kick at a piece of kelp while walking along an Alaska shoreline, you might think of it as a potential economic crop.

Sugar kelp, or saccharina latissima, is a developing mariculture crop in Alaska, and a research opportunity for Dr. Michael Stekoll, UAS Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Stekoll was awarded money from Alaska Sea Grant to find the best way to grow sugar kelp by studying it’s natural life history. Blue Evolution, a company dedicated to sustainable mariculture, matched Stekoll’s Alaska Sea Grant to fund Annie Thomson as a graduate student. Together they are searching Juneau waters for kelp beds to record their growth rate, density, and fertility.

“It is essential to understand all you can about the organism you are trying to grow. We need to know where the natural plants are since they are the source of seed,” Stekoll said.

“We need to know when the plants are fertile in order to plan our hatchery (nursery) production.”

Another part to the research is nursing kelp seeds, which Stekoll and Thomson provide to three Blue Evolution aquatic farms. Blue Evolution is dedicated to following seaweed from ocean to plate.

Kelp spores grow on PVC pipe wrapped with string over the span of two months in Stekoll’s “nursery” located in the UAS Anderson building.

Then are sent to the Blue Evolution aquatic farms in Ketchikan and Kodiak. The kelp is then harvested around May dried then sent to Blue Evolution factories to be made into edible seaweed products.

Kelp contains over 70 nutrients including zinc, manganese, and copper according to a report by Sheffield Hallam University.

The plant can also be a potential replacement for spinach. Frozen it can be added as a nutritional boost to smoothies. Blue Evolution currently carries a line of pasta made from kelp powder.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the global seaweed industry offers products with an estimated total annual value of up to $6 billion.

Those numbers are forecasted to quadruple by 2024 due to market growth. An Aug. 2016 report by Grand View Research, a U.S. based market research and consulting company, indicated that kelp is also expected to be of use in healthcare, animal feed, and fertilizers sectors.

Successfully farming seaweed could alleviate some of Alaska’s dependency on imported food.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services projects 95 percent of the $2 billion of food Alaskans purchase is imported.

Locally grown sugar kelp is a food product that provides Alaskans an alternative to produce that must be flown or barged in.

Tamsen Peeples, Blue Evolution’s lead of Alaska Operations said “Seaweed farming has the potential to provide fresh, locally grown sea greens to communities during the winter months and dried or preserved products throughout the year.”

Sugar kelp is harvested in the winter, creating seasonal job opportunities according to Tamsen.

“For many commercial fishermen or those that work with the tourism industry, winters are an economic lull,” Peeples said.

“Kelp farming could provide an alternative revenue source for motivated individuals.”

He said the environmental and economic opportunities of kelp farming are equally important.

“Seaweed mariculture is a fantastic partner or alternative to terrestrial farming,” Peeples said.

“Seaweed and kelp farming requires no fresh water, is a carbon negative, subsidizes local populations, and provides habitat for a number of fish and invertebrate species.”

UAS students interested in working with seaweed mariculture can contact Professor Stekoll at (907) 796-6279, or by email: msstekoll@alaska.edu.

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