Harvesting Alaska: New research could change seaweed rules
On a cloudy summer morning in mid-July, Brian Ulaski straps on his backpack and starts a short trek down the Diamond Creek Trail about four miles north of Homer.
The trail takes you to the beach at the mouth of Kachemak Bay.
On this particular morning, low tide is at 9:30 a.m., which means Ulaski will need to work quickly.
He’s a graduate student studying marine biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and this summer, he’s working on a research project with Professor Brenda Konar, funded by Sea Grand Alaska.
The goal: find out if seaweed can be sustainably harvested Cook Inlet.
“We want to look at: is harvesting detrimental to these local populations or is harvesting for personal use really this minor thing that we don’t need to worry about, therefore influencing management decisions to maybe modify the current regulation that seaweed is illegal to harvest in non-subsistence areas,” Ulaski said.
Yep. Illegal. Probably not something most people think of when they think seaweed. It doesn’t matter if it’s growing on a rock or simply washed up on a beach. Harvesting without a permit in a non-subsistence area could land you a court date.
The restriction first went into effect about 15 years ago, when Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials say there was a perceived overharvest of rockweed in Seward.
Glenn Hollowell manages commercial and subsistence fisheries in the Lower Cook Inlet.
“Everybody was like, 'whoa we’ve got to do something about this,' and proposals went before the Board of Fish and that was when the regulations were put in place restricting the harvest of kelp,” Hollowell said.
Fish and Game is now collaborating with UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences on their project. Hollowell says aquatic plants provide food and shelter for animals that are commercially important for the area.
He also says Fish and Game is the lacking information needed to really manage seaweed harvesting, which is where UAF comes in.
“It could potentially tell us what could be sustainably harvested and what we might want to not harvest or only harvest at very low levels,” Hollowell said.
Beaches near the road system could become popular places to collect seaweed, according to Ulaski.
This summer he’s harvesting seaweed in areas with high foot traffic to determine when seaweed are reproductive in Alaska, the size most seaweed becomes reproductive, how much can be harvested while still sustaining local populations and the rebound rates.
The project is looking at three different species: rockweed, bull kelp and sugar kelp.
Every two months, Ulaski collects the samples from six intertidal sites around the Homer area and four dive sites across the bay.
He also collects beach wrack, or seaweed that has simply washed up on shore, to determine its reproductive status.
He then takes all of the biomass he’s collected to the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory near Seldovia.
That’s where he really digs into the science-- sifting through samples and documenting their stats.
This fall, the researchers will compile a report that will likely be presented at the board of fish for the lower Cook Inlet next December. The results could help the state better manage harvest of seaweed in Alaska.
“Harvesting for local Alaskans is part of a lifestyle up here so if we can contribute to making regulations that are kind of on par with the communities interests then I think that will be a really good thing,” Ulaski said.
Aquatic plants aren’t a big part of Alaska agriculture just yet, but with more research, perhaps more people will turn to the sea — and its weeds — as a new frontier.
You can find seaweed recipes made by Mary Smith and Jessica Stugelmayer with Edible Alaska by visiting the Edible Alaska website.
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