University of Alaska professor receives Sea Grant funding for seaweed aquaculture research



NR: SG-2016/NR316
two people pull on kelp in waterTechnician Tamsen Peeples and University of Alaska Southeast undergraduate Eric Fagerstrom check on a longline outplanting of Saccharina kelp at an experimental site near Coghlan Island. Photo by Mike Stekoll. Click image for larger version [3 MB].

Juneau, Alaska—A new $418,000 grant from the National Sea Grant College Program will support research aimed at helping seaweed growers in Alaska be more successful.

The grant, administered by Alaska Sea Grant, will fund a two-year study by Michael Stekoll, a University of Alaska Southeast professor with a joint appointment at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

This research project will address questions about cultivating seaweed at higher latitudes—such as when seaweed plants become fertile, whether the timing of transferring plants to the ocean can be controlled and the optimal conditions for outplanting, the best time to harvest, “cold banking” of seed and feasibility of selecting for specific traits—with the goal of helping growers become successful in this emerging industry.

kelp hanging on a lineThese kelp were planted experimentally on a longline on a mussel raft to see how they would grow. Photo by Carter Newell. Click image for larger version [2 MB].

Seaweed aquaculture presents a new economic opportunity for coastal Alaska. Cultivated seaweeds drive a $6.6 billion industry worldwide, and the global commercial seaweed market is growing rapidly. Commercial shellfish farmers have grown oysters, clams and mussels in Alaska for years. Now seaweed has the potential to play a role in the future of the state’s aquaculture industry. Several commercial seaweed farms have recently been permitted in Alaska, and shellfish farmers have expressed a strong interest in adding seaweed cultivation to their operations, spurred by the increasing popularity of seaweed products. The OceansAlaska shellfish hatchery in Ketchikan and several local farmers are experimenting with growing seaweed.

Stekoll has experimented with growing seaweed in Alaska for the last 25 years. While several Alaska seaweed species have commercial potential, his current project will focus primarily on sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima. Sugar kelp may have the best chance of becoming commercially viable because it is fast-growing, grows best in the winter and has a pleasing taste, according to a commercial distributor.

Stekoll’s research is expected to contribute to cultivation conditions and methods that will allow producers to grow and harvest commercial quantities of this crop and eventually other species native to Alaska. The state of Alaska prohibits import of any seaweeds, so seaweed farmed or grown for research in Alaska’s oceans must come from local stock. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game places extensive conditions on the mariculture of seaweeds to protect existing natural populations.

woman holding kelpTechnician Tamsen Peeples displays Saccharinablades grown over the winter on longlines near Coghlan Island. These plants would be ready for harvest. Photo by Mike Stekoll. Click image for larger version [1.9 MB].

Blue Evolution, a U.S. seaweed-farming company, will provide $125,000 to fund a CFOS fisheries graduate student who will work with Stekoll. The company also will assist with quality analysis of kelp grown as part of the project. The partnership will allow for direct transfer of Stekoll’s research into the commercial sector. Blue Evolution is also working directly with shellfish farmers in Alaska in hopes of kick-starting this new industry.

Throughout the United States, the National Sea Grant College Program is providing $3.4 million in federal funding to support aquaculture research and outreach. Funding will support research on biotoxins, shellfish and seaweed culture, environmental stressors on oysters, and other topics relevant to the industry.

Alaska Sea Grant has supported aquaculture projects in the state for decades, including shellfish culture and crab stock rehabilitation. New projects on seaweed aquaculture enhance the program’s efforts to support economies in Alaska coastal communities with applied research and outreach.

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.