Aquatic farming in Alaska could be a big industry, and completely sustainable.

That's according to Wrangell’s Julie Decker, executive director of Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on research and development for the seafood industry.

Shellfish and seaweed farming are the only types of aquatic farming permitted in Alaska. Mariculture includes saltwater farming, differing from aquaculture which “farms” in freshwater.

Mariculture development, if managed properly, has a positive impact on the environment, as opposed to conventional farming on land, Decker said.

"It's a wonderful food source that doesn't need input in the sense of freshwater, feed or fertilizer: All those things that make the other food sources non-sustainable," Decker said.

Then-Gov. Bill Walker in 2016 established and appointed members of the Alaska Mariculture Task Force, which was reauthorized in 2018 by Gov. Mike Dunleavy to implement a plan for a $100 million annual mariculture industry in 20 years.

That would include oysters, seaweed, geoduck, mussels and sea cucumbers.

Making their contribution to that 20-year plan, Brian and Kristy Herman purchased Canoe Lagoon Oysters in March 2020. The farm is 30 miles from Wrangell by boat on Blashke Islands, off the northeast end of Prince of Wales Island.

Brian is from Pennsylvania, Kristy is from Arizona. They split their time between Alaska and Arizona. The Hermans had a commercial gillnet operation in Kenai, but left salmon fishing and turned to oysters in pursuit of a more stable industry.

Brian Herman said they moved the base of operations to Wrangell when they purchased the oyster farm. As the third owner of the operation, which was established in 1990, Herman said they made a major investment to change the previous method of farming from lantern nets to a float-bag system.

The float bag keeps the oysters in the most nutrient-rich environment, and allows the farm to turn the bags weekly with much less effort to get a meaty, deep-cupped oyster. The new system shortens the length of time it takes to get an oyster to market size, Herman said.

The Hermans have invested $300,000 in the farm. About half of that investment went into boats.

The upgrades were fairly costly, but Herman said the payoff is already showing up. "We're just getting to the point where we are selling at volumes that are actually profitable," he said.

The farm didn't make any money the first year. He said they were establishing themselves in the market, trying out oysters to see which species would stick, and selling 50 dozen a week.

The farm now is selling 200 dozen oysters a week. Herman said they expect the operation will take in $200,000 a year in gross revenue starting next July, with a goal of selling 400 dozen oysters a week.

Herman said they have been permitted to add sugar kelp farming at Canoe Lagoon Oysters. He's going to work a test plot because there is naturally occurring sugar kelp in the waters at the site. "We won't know until we try.”

Herman said he was able to find a good customer in LGO Hospitality, a Phoenix-based restaurant group that is going to buy the majority of the farm's oysters.

They plan to continue investing in Wrangell, envisioning four full-time employees between the farm and in Wrangell. The business runs its oysters by boat to Wrangell, then ships out the boxes on Alaska Airlines. "Even though our farm isn't located in Wrangell, by basing out of Wrangell we're providing economic support to the town," Herman said.

And that ties into Decker's findings, as well. About 70% of what oyster farmers earn is spent within a 50-mile radius of their operations, Decker said.

In addition to turning mariculture production into foods — such as kelp that is made into salsas and other products by Juneau-based Barnacle Foods, Ketchikan-based Foraged & Found, and Seagrove Kelp Co. in Craig — tourism is another economic opportunity, Decker said. A farm in Ketchikan recently built a floating oyster bar and started working with cruise ships to tour the growing operation.

Decker said lease applications for aquatic farming sites are on the rise, dampened only by the pandemic. Looking at 2016, the state approved 8 acres. After the task force was established, that number leapt to 636 acres the in 2017.

And now, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources is reviewing 116 applications for a total of  2,940 acres. That includes new applications and expansions to existing operations.

Taking products Americans already use and incorporating seaweed into them with kelp salsa, noodles and barbecue sauce appears to be the recipe for success, Decker said. It accounts for Americans’ different taste sensibility than Asians, who have a long history with dried seaweed. "That to me is the opportunity," Decker said.

Developing anything new is not easy, Decker said. That's a challenge facing the sustainable aquatic farming industry. Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is working to get more equipment into the hands of farmers to do sampling at sites, and invest in research and development.

Additionally, the University of Alaska Southeast is sponsoring a mariculture conference in Juneau from Feb. 22-24. Students can attend for free.