Mariculture Enhancement Bill Passes Alaska Legislature

An Alaska bill that creates a regulatory framework with which the state Department of Fish and Game can manage shellfish enhancement projects has passed both houses of the Legislature. Image via Alaska House Coalition.

Mariculture enhancement legislation has passed both houses of the Alaska Legislature, lifting the hopes of shellfish researchers for a future in which hatchery production of juvenile king crab would boost stocks to a sustainable commercial level.

House Bill 41, sponsored by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, creates a regulatory framework with which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) can manage shellfish enhancement projects and outlines criteria for the issuance of permits.

It sets out stringent safety standards to ensure sustainability and health of existing natural stocks. ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang must also make a determination of substantial public benefit before the project can proceed.

HB 41 also allows the ADF&G to set the application fee for a shellfish enhancement project permit and grants the similar authority over the application fee for a salmon enhancement project permit.

Ortiz said the legislation has been thoroughly vetted over the course of six years and a pandemic, and that’s he’s thrilled to see it one step closer to unlocking the potential for expanded economic opportunities in coastal communities.

As of mid-May, the bill was awaiting the signature of Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Bob Foy, science and research director for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said the legislation was exciting, and noted that NOAA has been working with the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology Program (AKCRRB) and others for several years on the effort.

“This will allow the program to consider the next steps and consider the feasibility of doing this,” Foy explained. “King crab have not seen significant recruitment in many years and it’s likely an environmental issue that is leading to the overall decline. The oceanography is also changing (with climate change) and currents have to transfer the (crab) larvae to suitable habitat.”

“The AKCRRB program has put out documentation on best practices on how this can be done.  Now that some of the permitting hurdles are gone, there is potential for entities to consider this,” he added, noting that it can take up to seven years for male king crab to grow big enough to harvest.

“It is no small effort,” he said.

More kudos for the bill’s passage came from Heather McCarty, a cofounder and cochair of AKCRRB, which is an informal research program devoted to hatching and rearing wild red and blue king crabs in a large-scale hatchery setting.

“We are extremely happy and thankful,” McCarty said. “We’ve been working on it for seven years. Now we will be able to test and find out what happens.”