COVID-19 harms Alaska mariculture industry
By MELISSA GOOD
May 04, 2020
Alaska Sea Grant distributed the anonymous survey to Alaska’s mariculture producers to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 during February and March. Survey respondents reported that revenue was down, with 43 percent reporting losses of more than half of their revenue. More than a third had laid off employees.
Mariculture — the cultivation of shellfish and aquatic plants — is a fledgling industry in Alaska with a current value of around $1 million. Sales 2019 included 1.8 million oysters, 112,000 pounds of seaweed and smaller amounts of other shellfish species.
While fisheries and aquaculture businesses in Alaska are allowed to continue operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic with health safety precautions, closures in restaurants and tourism-related businesses around the country have reduced the demand for seafood.
Mariculture farmers reported the biggest hits to their businesses were restaurant closures (81%), labor challenges (52%) and reduced opportunity for export (48%). Closures of restaurants have resulted in few or no sales, which means little or no cash flow to the farms. With reduced cash flow, farmers are unable to hire workers to maintain, harvest and process their crop.
As the summer growing season approaches, oyster farmers are concerned that a shortage of labor could lead to the loss of millions of oysters to predation and fouling. Long-term concerns include whether the economy will rebound, restaurants will reopen and customers will return with the “previous enthusiasm for new healthier/more sustainable products,” as one survey respondent said. Another respondent said some of the impacts from COVID-19 could be minimized if the state’s ferries were operating.
While the oyster industry is established in Alaska, seaweed farming is in its infancy, and farmers are concerned whether their operations can survive. “Innovation on farms and in processing is extremely difficult without expertise from outside Alaska. Seaweed is a nascent sector that needs lots of R&D [research and development] to mature and expand,” a respondent wrote.
Alaska Sea Grant is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sea Grant is a national network of 34 university-based programs across the country. For more than 50 years, Sea Grant has supported coastal and Great Lakes communities through research, extension and education.
The survey was conducted to identify the economic impacts of COVID-19 to guide response efforts by Alaska Sea Grant, National Sea Grant and the NOAA Office of Aquaculture.
For additional details on the survey, Alaska Sea Grant survey reveals challenges to mariculture industry caused by COVID-19 pandemic.