The southeast seaweed and shellfish industry is about to get a boost from the federal government. The United States Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it will provide $500,000 in funding to develop plans for a new mariculture processing facility on Prince of Wales Island. Producers and processors rejoice at the news.
USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small said the initiative aligns with the Biden administration’s plans for new economic opportunities in a region in transition as the wood shrinks.
“It’s a great opportunity for economic diversification,” Torres Small said in a phone interview Friday. “And one of the things that I like about this project is that it’s really driven by partners on the ground.”
She credits the idea to the Southeast Conference, a regional civic and industrial group. Executive Director Robert Venables says the investment will be put to good use.
“One of the things we try to do is help support the industry and identify their needs, and it’s become paramount that a facility can help especially smaller entities to have a place to do the processing, storage, shipping, aggregation, a number of things, but they can’t afford to build facilities themselves.
Venables says the idea is to create a cooperative facility that would be shared by a number of mariculture companies.
Mathew Scaletta owns Wildfish Cannery in Klawock.
“We’re like an artisanal seafood cannery,” he said by phone Friday.
Scaletta says Wildfish does not currently can any mariculture products, but they are looking to enter the business.
“We hope to be a value-added producer for mariculture products. Part of our business plan for the future is to incorporate more of these products into our range,” he said.
This is all very preliminary, but Scaletta says he could see his company create five to 10 jobs by expanding into the new facility.
Markos Scheer runs Seagrove Kelp, a mariculture business with a nursery in Ketchikan and a seaweed farm on the west side of Prince of Wales Island. He also chairs the Seafood and Seafood Committee of the Southeastern Conference.
“I think it’s really an exciting time for mariculture in Alaska and the development of sustainable, non-extractive economic opportunities for coastal Alaskans. I think it’s part of a shift in really interesting and great paradigm and opportunity for sustainable economic development for coastal communities,” Scheer said Friday by phone.
Venables says the half-million dollar increase will pay for engineering and design work, community engagement, utility work and other preparations to prepare for construction. He says the Southeastern Conference plans to help tap into funding from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill to help make the facility happen.