This article has been updated to specify that the bill would allow ASMI to market aquatic farm products.

Pinto abalone, the only species of abalone found in Alaska.
(Courtesy Alaska Department of Fish & Game)

House lawmakers passed a bill (HB41) Friday that would, for the first time, allow shellfish like crab to be grown in hatcheries and released into the wild to bolster commercial fisheries. 

Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz sponsored H-B 41 that would put shellfish on the same footing as salmon species that are bred in hatcheries across the state.

“The bill gives Fish and Game a solution to potentially help address declining stocks of shellfish like stocks of crab out west or abalone in the Southeast which have suffered from overfishing and predation, instead of relying only on conservative management,” Ortiz explained.

The mariculture bill found bipartisan support: Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance told legislators she sees benefits for coastal communities throughout the state.  

“I didn’t think that I was that old to say, ‘Hey, back in the day, we had razor clams this big, and now they’re small, and they can no longer make that available to the public,'” Vance said. “This is an area that we need the enhancement, we need these nonprofits to come in and say we’re going to help rehabilitate the shellfish to make it available for common use.”

Some Alaska biologists have voiced concern that an influx of hatchery shellfish could do more harm than good to what remains of the state’s wild stocks. They’re particularly concerned about crabs, one of the more mobile species of shellfish.

Only two lawmakers opposed the legislation. But not on environmental grounds. Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) said there should be a cap on permit fees. He also took issue with the fact that the bill allows the Department of Fish and Game to penalize people, saying he thought it was backwards to allow penalties when the regulations still need to be written. 

“If we are going to be in a sense creating new crimes,” Eastman said, “I think that the legislature ought to know what it is that the regulations are, that are going to attach to these stiff penalties. And have the ability as legislators — as elected representatives of the people — to make sure that those regulations are in fact, what the people want to attach to such penalties.”

Eastman and fellow Wasilla Republican Christopher Kurka were the only no votes. 

The bill also allows the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to promote aquatic farm products. A companion bill in the Senate has yet to be heard. It will require passage by state senators and the governor’s signature to become law.

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