Creating Prosperity & Resilience in Alaska’s Mariculture Industry

Mariculture offers promising economic and environmental benefits for coastal communities throughout Alaska (Photo credit: Lia Heifetz, Barnacle Foods)

Though the word ‘mariculture’ may not be a common term for many people, especially those living inland, it has come to signify an emerging industry that presents a tremendous opportunity for coastal regional economies. It is a specialized branch of aquaculture involving the cultivation of marine organisms in the ocean for food and other products. Think farming, but in the ocean; mariculture operations cultivate and harvest regular batches of shellfish like oysters, mussels, abalone, or geoducks (pronounced “gooeyducks”), as well as seaweeds, like kelp. Mariculture of shellfish and seaweeds do not require feed, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, antibiotics, or practically any inputs at all, making the practice very sustainable and quite inexpensive to operate. Mariculture offers such promising economic and environmental benefits that various organizations in the state of Alaska have been working together with government offices towards the goal of growing this sector into a $100 million industry in 20 years. These efforts are generating a lot of buzz and have also become one of the centerpieces of Southeast Alaska’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), bringing together a mix of partners to transform the regional economy and create new opportunities for residents, businesses, and communities.

Laying the Foundation for the Mariculture Industry

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation (AFDF) began seriously looking into the possibilities for mariculture in 2013. Opportunities for its expansion were consistently raised as part of its strategic planning sessions, leading staff to begin asking: Where is the support for mariculture in Alaska? What current regulations are in place for aqua- and mariculture? Where can we start to grow a state-wide initiative? As a result of these inquiries, in 2014 the AFDF received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the Alaska Mariculture Initiative – an effort to accelerate the development of mariculture in Alaska. Two years later, Alaska Governor Bill Walker established the Alaska Mariculture Task Force, which included AFDF and other key stakeholders.

Around the same time, Southeast Conference, which serves as the economic development district for southeast Alaska, was going through a rigorous research and planning process for its 2016-2020 CEDS. The broader seafood industry had long been seen as a top opportunity for the region, and mariculture was officially identified as a priority objective for seafood development in the Southeast Conference’s CEDS. The document specifically mentions supporting the Governor’s Task Force, as well as increasing the number of mariculture operations and improving the production of existing operations. Southeast Conference staff and leadership recognized that mariculture leveraged many of the strengths and resources that the region already had available. It also brought new opportunities for jobs, income, and stable economic growth to coastal communities.  One of the most important priorities that the Southeast Conference identified was to remove obstacles such as leasing requirements and coastal regulations that were causing tremendous barriers to entry into the new market.

Supporting the development of the mariculture industry is identified as a top priority in Southeast Conference’s 2016-2020 CEDS.

Over the next two years, AFDF and the Task Force collaborated with a variety of stakeholders: seafood and maritime industry leaders, state offices such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, federal agencies like NOAA, Alaskan tribal groups, and the University of Alaska. They also worked closely with regional organizations, such as the Southeast Conference and the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC). The Task Force wanted the planning process to be integrated with up-to-date economic analysis and to be informed by real data, not just projections.  Echoing Southeast Conference’s calls to address barriers to entry, the Task Force worked with various state departments to change legislation on renewing licenses, marketing seafood products, and other obstacles. The Task Force also worked directly with the Governor’s administration to make regulatory changes that would encourage more and larger mariculture operations across the state. Members of the Task Force engaged in numerous interviews with local press to raise awareness and advocate for the Initiative; they also offered public presentations to circulate information and connect with local Alaskans. The Task Force secured approval from a variety of federal and private funding agencies to open funds for mariculture loans and research grants and also approached environmental and tribal groups early on to gain their critically important support and planning input.

Planning for the Future

In 2018, the Task Force presented Governor Walker with the Alaska Mariculture Development Plan, an 82-page document detailing the results of the two-year iterative comprehensive planning process. The Plan lays out the vision of growing a $100 million mariculture industry in 20 years and then outlines a comprehensive plan for achieving that vision, including recommendations such as “Align Laws, Regulations, and Agency Practices with Stakeholder Needs,” “Promote Success through Alaska Native Participation,” and “Develop New Mariculture Markets and Products.” The Plan was complemented by a set of case studies, a separate economic framework for mariculture in Alaska, and a summary briefing document. In response, Governor Walker signed another Administrative Order in 2018 extending the Task Force for another three years to research further recommendations, to serve as an advisory panel to the Governor, and to further support the development of mariculture in Alaska. As the Task Force approaches its May 2021 expiration date, its members are working to establish a more permanent body that will continue to encourage and support the development of mariculture in the state.

A 100 acre seaweed grow site in Doyle Bay, near Craig, Alaska (Photo credit: Markos Scheer, Seagrove Kelp, Co.)

Meanwhile, Southeast Conference and other regional partners are working to incorporate the Alaska Mariculture Development Plan into the latest CEDS plan. In the process of drafting the 2020-2025 CEDS, Southeast Conference underwent another comprehensive SWOT analysis and identified mariculture as a top priority for overall development of their entire region, not just a priority for developing the seafood sector. Mariculture is now seen as a symbol of regional resilience and strength: one individual or group works hard to make a living, and along the way unites people together to grow a community and lift up the entire region. In fact, four Southeast Conference Board members have started their own mariculture businesses, truly ‘putting their money where their mouth is.’

Launching New Businesses and Building Value Chains

Due in large part to the efforts of the Governor’s Task Force, AFDF, and regional organizations like the Southeast Conference, the mariculture industry in Alaska is seeing unprecedented growth. The Task Force reports that sixty applications for new mariculture operations have been filed over four years, including applications for what will hopefully be the largest mariculture setups in the entire state, and potentially in North America. The applications have come from all over Alaska, including remote Adak at the very tip of the string of islands extending southwest from the mainland; some of these have already been approved and have started their operations. One cooperative in the Prince William Sound region, currently composed of nine small farms, is working to grow to twenty-five farms and also plans to expand into product development, using its own harvests to make and sell consumable goods.

Another example of a successful mariculture startup is Premium Aquatics LLC, the brainchild of Markos Scheer, who served as a board member for the AFDF and currently serves as the VP of Southeast Conference. Markos’s first project under Premium Aquatics is a kelp production operation called Seagrove Kelp Company, which consists of a nursery for raising “baby kelp” and a 100-acre kelp farm in the coastal waters around Prince of Wales Island, in Southern Southeast Alaska. The Seagrove mariculture permit also includes about 25 acres for oyster production, which Scheer plans to begin soon. To begin operations, Seagrove was able to hire local fisherman, as many of the skills were easily transferable between fishing and kelp farming. The company completed its first full season of kelp production in June 2020; as such, Seagrove has already proven to be operationally viable, and so the only real challenges to the growth and success of the company are market development and capital acquisitions.  Scheer sees mariculture as a “foundational industry” that can dramatically change the region for the better.

Barnacle Foods and other new companies are growing the Alaskan mariculture industry by building value chains and keeping wealth rooted in local communities (Photo credit: Lia Heifetz, Barancle Foods)

Many new products are also being developed and successfully marketed from mariculture harvests. For example, Barnacle Foods is a new business in Juneau that sells kelp salsas and kelp pickles, among other exciting and experimental kelp-based foods. When they started four years ago, owners Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz were making kelp pickles and salsas in their home kitchen for themselves, friends, and family; the wild kelp they used in their homemade foods was pulled from the ocean by their own hands. Now, they operate a business out of a commercial kitchen, with kelp sourced from successful mariculture operations. Barnacle Foods is getting rave reviews and demand is growing fast. Their business is an essential part of developing a successful mariculture industry for Alaska as it keeps the value chain local and builds wealth in local communities.  Kern and Heifetz have ambitions to become a major kelp processor for the state of Alaska, further securing the value-added within their community and reducing the exports of raw materials to be processed elsewhere. They view the future of mariculture and its products with great optimism, especially in the light of such unexpected global conditions which have highlighted the need for stable, domestic food sources.

The various initiatives and projects centered on developing the Alaskan mariculture industry all emerged from planning processes that identified an opportunity to not only create jobs and income, but also to create a sustainable industry from the ground up that roots wealth locally.  The Alaska Mariculture Task Force’s work on this issue and mariculture’s prominent placement in the region’s CEDS have established a framework and solidified partnerships to help build on local strengths, eliminate barriers, and create the space for the industry to grow. For the communities and people of Alaska, mariculture is an opportunity to improve or preserve their jobs and incomes and promote sustainability. At the same time, it has also enhanced cultural identity, environmental responsibility, health and nutrition, economic diversity, and much more for communities across the state.

Researched and written by Austin Barrington, NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow

Special thanks to the following individuals for sharing their ideas and insights during interviews in preparation for this case study:  Meilani Schijvens, Southeast Conference; Julie Decker, Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation; Markos Scheer, Seagrove Kelp Co.; and Lia Heifetz, Barancle Foods.

This case study was developed as part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program, funded through a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration,U.S. Department of Commerce.  The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.


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Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

At NADO, Andrew conducts research on the newest economic and community development best practices from Economic Development Districts across the country. He helps produce easily digestible information on complex regional issues through case studies, tip sheets, and research reports. Andrew also hosts training and professional development opportunities including conference sessions and virtual webinars for member regional development organizations.

Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.

Jack Morgan came to the NADO team in 2022 after seven years with the National Association of Counties (NACo) as a Program and Senior Program Manager. Prior to NACo, Jack was a Policy Analyst for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Jack holds a bachelor’s in geography from Emory & Henry College and a master’s in geography from Appalachian State University.

As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.

Jack is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is a member of the American Planning Association (APA) in the Regional & Intergovernmental Planning division. He also serves on the Emory & Henry College Alumni Board.

Taking road trips, reading non-fiction, and indulging in top-notch barbecue and coffee round out Jack’s days. He loves maps, mountains, and of course, all things sports.

Karron Grant joined the NADO team in 2023 as Administrative Specialist and is the first face (or voice) you’ll see or hear when reaching out to NADO. As Administrative Specialist, Karron manages our database and coordinates NADO event operations. He ensures members’ needs are met, contact information stays current, and NADO’s office is running efficiently.

Karron came to NADO after four years in the classroom teaching at The New Century School and Old Mill Middle North where he received the Patriot of the Year award. He attended Towson University and the University of Maryland Global Campus and holds a bachelor’s in international studies and humanities.

Visiting art galleries and museums, playing basketball and bowling, and taking in movies and music are some of Karron’s interests and hobbies.

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Laurie holds a bachelor’s in public affairs and government from Mount Vernon College and a master’s in health services administration from The George Washington University. Prior to NADO, Laurie spent time as a Field Specialist and an Eagle Staff Fund Director at First Nations Development Institute.

When she’s taking a rare reprieve from her NADO work, Laurie enjoys traveling domestically and internationally to visit friends and family.

Jamie McCormick joined the NADO team as a Policy Fellow first in 2019, then moved into her current role as Legislative Associate in 2021. As Legislative Associate, Jamie keeps NADO members apprised of any policy and regulatory issues and communicates NADO’s policy priorities to federal stakeholders and partner organizations. She is also the first stop for members with inquiries on policy issues. The planning and execution of NADO & DDAA’s annual Washington Conference is also managed by Jamie.

Jamie holds a dual bachelor’s in political science and international relations from The State University of New York College at Geneseo and a master’s in international development studies from The George Washington University. In addition to her roles at NADO, Jamie also worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.

Outside of her NADO work, Jamie is an active volunteer with the VOLO Kids Foundation and a fundraiser for YMCA youth programs. She is also NADO’s resident baker regularly providing treats for those in NADO’s D.C. office. Traveling, taking her pup on walks, and hiking in the northeast keep Jamie busy. 

Brett Schwartz began at NADO in 2012 as a Research Fellow after earning his J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law. The following year, he was promoted to Program Manager and has now been leading as an Associate Director since 2018. Brett is responsible for managing NADO’s Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), as well as researching and monitoring the latest trends in regional economic development and resilience, including best practices for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). With more than a decade of experience on the NADO team, Brett is a dynamic relationship builder helping connect and build capacity among the national network of regional development organizations.

Brett also holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from Trinity College Dublin, as well as a certificate in mediation training. He’s a member of Catalyst Grantmakers of San Diego and Imperial Counties and was a participant in the 2021-22 Field Trips to the Future Cohort.

Brett is one of NADO’s West Coast team members residing in San Diego, CA where he enjoys spending time outdoors, attending concerts and festivals, and soaking up life as a parent of two young children.  

Communications Manager Katie Allison joined the team in 2023 to lead the strategic communication efforts of NADO. Katie creates and develops print and online materials, communicates NADO’s updates to members via weekly emails, and maintains content for and NADO’s social media channels. She also works with different departments to generate new ideas and strategies to effectively describe and promote the important work NADO is doing for EDDs and RDOs across the country.

An experienced nonprofit communications professional, Katie has worked for organizations in western North Carolina for nearly a decade. She holds a bachelor’s in communications from Wingate University where she was a four-year student athlete. Katie has also completed Vision Henderson County, a comprehensive leadership development program that promotes informed and committed civic volunteerism.

Katie stays busy trying to keep up with her two young sons whom she enjoys exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with. Traveling to new and favorite places and cheering on the Atlanta Braves are some of her family’s favorite pastimes.

Senior Program Manager Ciara Ristig has been a member of the NADO team since 2021, and helps with NADO’s EDD Community of Practice, EDD staff capacity building and other grants on a range of subjects, including equity and solar energy. Before NADO, Ciara worked as a Planner for the County of Santa Barbara and an Assistant Project Manager for REM Consult. Ciara holds a bachelor’s in urban studies and French from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in urban studies from Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris.

When she’s not traveling, you can find her outrigger paddling and serving on the board of the Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, CA, near her home base of Santa Barbara.

Carrie Kissel has been a member of the NADO team since 2005 when she began as a Research Fellow. She later moved into the roles of Program Manager in 2006, and then Associate Director in 2011. Carrie holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from Ball State University and a master’s in public anthropology from American University. As Associate Director, Carrie oversees NADO’s work in rural transportation and rural wealth creation. She provides technical assistance and support to rural regions on transportation and economic development issues and develops training and peer exchange events on transportation issues and rural wealth creation as an economic development strategy.

Carrie is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and secretary of TRB’s Rural Transportation Issues Coordinating Council. She is also a member of the American Anthropological Association and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Reading, gardening, hiking, and kayaking are a few of Carrie’s hobbies, and she organizes and facilitates a DEI/social justice-focused book club in her community.

Melissa Levy has worked at NADO as a Regional Development Researcher since February 2023 and is the Principal Consultant at her own firm specializing in wealth-based economic development consulting. With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Melissa brings a breadth of knowledge to her role as a Regional Development Researcher. Melissa provides in-depth research, coaching, and training on regional economic resilience, rural wealth creation strategies, and economic development.

Melissa is a North American Food Systems Network trained AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) facilitator and a WealthWorks coach, facilitator, and trainer. In addition to her professional work, Melissa serves on the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council, on the board of the Hinesburg Community Resource Center, and on the Hinesburg Economic Development Committee.

A true outdoorswoman, Melissa enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, paddleboarding, hiking, biking, and kayaking, as well as yoga, and teaching Tai Chi.

Program Manager Krishna Kunapareddy began her role with NADO in February of 2023 after 14 years of service at Boonslick Regional Planning Commission in Missouri. Krishna manages NADO Research Foundation’s Planning and Environmental Linkages and Center for Environmental Excellence projects. In addition to researching and writing, Krishna also conducts virtual workshops on innovative tools and techniques related to transportation planning.

She holds an undergraduate degree from Andhra University and a master’s from JNT University in India, as well as a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Krishna is also a certified Smart Cities Academy Practitioner and holds the Location Advantage certificate from geographic information system software company ESRI.

In her spare time, Krishna volunteers with Mentors4College helping high schoolers better plan for their post-high school paths. She is also a dedicated advocate for documented H4 Dreamers.

Krystal DeLeon joined the NADO team in October of 2020 as Database & Grants Manger, but in January of 2022 transitioned to her current role as Operations Manager. Krystal keeps NADO running through behind the scenes work of invoicing, solving any database issues that may arise, producing membership reports, and much more. Her organizational skills and thorough knowledge help the NADO team operate more efficiently across all departments.

Prior to NADO, Krystal was the Conference Services Coordinator for State Services Organization. She is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), a licensed realtor, and holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Liberty University. When she’s not keeping NADO’s operations in order, Krystal enjoys running and rock climbing, and adventuring with her husband and son.

Senior Program Manager Bret Allphin joined NADO in April of 2022 bringing with him a wealth of knowledge after a 20-year career with Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Marietta, Ohio. In addition to his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public affairs, Bret is licensed Geographical Information Systems Professional (GISP). He is NADO’s go-to team member for all things mapping while also supporting members with transportation and economic development technical assistance services.

An avid sports aficionado and former collegiate athlete, Bret enjoys cheering on his Cincinnati Reds, hitting the trails on his mountain bike, and improving his golf game whenever possible. Bret is an involved community member in Marietta dedicating much of his spare time to serving on local nonprofit boards.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

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