Bill Collins remembers when lobster was a worthless bycatch. “Growing up in Newfoundland, no one wanted to eat it,” he says. Kelp was even worse: fishermen called patches of it “devil’s apron.” Its long, flat strands fouled nets, jammed up propellers and marked rocky, dangerous waters. But just as lobster has become a delicacy, Collins thinks kelp’s day is coming.
A few years ago, the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance hired the marine geologist and entrepreneur to find the best industries for attracting foreign investment to the area. He considered everything from eco-tourism to clean-tech, but one option was too good to hand over to someone else — kelp farming.
Kelp is a type of seaweed that grows in long strands stretching from depths of more than 50 metres right up to the surface of the ocean. Like their landlubber counterparts, kelp grow in forests of trunks that both shade the sea floor and create multi-canopy habitats that harbour some of the richest biodiversity in temperate waters. Wave energy undulates the trunks and leaves back and forth, as the energy is absorbed by the kelp, protecting coastlines and creating calmer habitat for birds and mammals to shelter in. Many biologists agree kelp forests are one of the most important habitats for marine wildlife in all the Canadian oceans.
Those same factors make kelp farming attractive. “The opportunity is tremendous,” Collins says. “Canada is in the sweet spot for brown kelp. And farming it here can check a number of boxes.”
The best use for kelp, Collins says, is food. It’s not the same as nori — the dried sushi paper — but it has many other uses. Ground kelp adds an umami flavour boost to salads and all kinds of soups and noodle or rice dishes, or can be rehydrated and sliced. Almost every type of seaweed is edible. Today, more than 99 per cent of seaweed is produced by seven Asian countries, including China and Indonesia, where it’s eaten raw in salads, cooked in soups and dried in seasonings. Consumed in much smaller quantities on this side of the Pacific, the North American market imports 95 per cent of its seaweed from abroad, worth more than $60 million every year, according to a study by the Island Institute, an economic development non-profit based in Maine.
But demand is growing. As appetites shift to meat alternatives, foods grown in the sea present an untapped opportunity — and kelp is rich in micronutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, some of which are available elsewhere only in meat. A 2016 World Bank report estimates that if seaweed farming, including kelp farming, continues to grow by up to 14 per cent per year, it could add 10 per cent to the world’s present supply of food by 2050 (and this whole harvest could be grown in 0.03 per cent of the oceans’ surface area).
That’s just the beginning. Kelp is already used on land as a farm fertilizer and soil enhancer and in foods as a thickener and emulsifier. A United Nations paper found a long list of other potential uses. Added to cattle feed, it can reduce methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas source), plus growing it is less carbon intensive than alternative land-grown foods, like corn and hay. Because kelp absorbs 20 times as much carbon dioxide as the same area of cultivated land, there’s potential for industrial-sized, offshore kelp farms to sequestrate carbon. Like corn, kelp could replace petroleum as a biodegradable source of plastic, or a biofuel like ethanol. Grown in polluted areas, it purifies ocean waters. It’s already used to make vitamins — particularly iodine — and it may be a source of undiscovered pharmaceuticals.
Altogether, it was enough to convince Collins and some partners to start a kelp farming business: Cascadia Seaweed. But what gets Collins really excited is that, done right, kelp farms could actually benefit the coastal ecosystem. Unlike land crops, once seeded, kelp requires no watering, fertilizing, pest control or other inputs, he says. And the farms actually create natural habitat. “Kelp farming is one of the few industries that the more we do it, the better for the planet,” says Collins.
But just as the world is realizing its importance and potential, researchers are also discovering that many types of kelps and seaweeds are endangered. Kelp are disappearing around the world, including in B.C. and Nova Scotia waters. In Canada there’s a rush to find out why — and learn more about a little-known, but vital, seaweed.