Seaweed Farming: Transforming Fishing into Aquaculture

Seaweed farming. Are you serious?  You mean the stuff that floats up on the beach in high tide?  Tickles your thighs when you’re trying to swim?  Gets in unmentionable places in your bathing suit?

kelp

Yes, that seaweed.  Actually, seaweed is much more than a nuisance. As reported by Haris on Livestrong, seaweed is high in nutrients and offers many health benefits. You can improve your digestion, lower your cholesterol, and even lose weight. All you need to do is to eat a small amount of seaweed to get your daily dose of a number of essential minerals and vitamins.

The life of a seaweed farmer

Lisa Moore has been harvesting digitata, a wild seaweed, in the waters of Casco Bay, Maine for four seasons now.  A diver fills up bags with the digitata, and Moore transfers the seaweed to the deck of her boat. She inspects for snails, then packs the seaweed in coolers. “I look at every plant that goes in,” she says, as reported by Pols in the Portland Press Herald. So, what’s next for Moore? She’s applying for a lease to farm the digitata and sell it to Ocean Approved. Ocean Approved promotes a proprietary process that “ensures consistency of cut, texture, appearance and flavor” as well as lack of dyes or additives. They recently acquired $500,000 in capital to expand their capacity.

Moore wants to pass along her knowledge of seaweed farming to her 11-year-old son. He’s off to Harpswell Coastal Academy, which focuses on field experiences on Maine’s shorelines, working waterfronts, forests, and farms.

The man behind the research in seaweed farming

Tropical Storm Irene hit many eastern seaboard areas hard in 2011. When Bren Smith of the Thimble Island Oyster Company needed to augment the loss of the majority of his shellfish crop due to the storm, he turned to professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, Charlie Yarish.

Yarish loves seaweed. His long career has been primarily devoted to the study of seaweed, researching the biogeography and ecophysiology of seaweeds. He instructed Smith how to stretch a 150-foot line above his shellfishing beds about a meter below the surface of the water. Then they seeded them with kelp spores grown in Yarish’s lab. Yarish runs a seaweed research lab out of UConn’s Stamford campus.

See it for yourself: A seaweed farm lab in action

Yarish understood before many others that seaweed had a lot going for it.  It’s good for the environment, improves human health, and stimulates a tenuous fisheries industry. In keeping with eco-justice philosophies, he developed an “open source” approach to seaweed research and farming.  That means that new seaweed farmers can access Yarish’s research, and, to reciprocate, they make their products available to his research lab.  

In 2013, Connecticut passed legislation that allows for fee-based licenses to farm seaweed on a per-acre basis. To assist farmers, Yarish and his colleagues released a 92-page handbook to growing four species of economically and ecologically valuable native seaweeds—kelp,Gracilaria, nori, and Irish moss. It’s called, “How does seaweed farming work?” The guide can be downloaded free of charge.  

Essentially, as reported by Vincola on ecoRI News, reproductive plants release their spores and are nurtured through their juvenile stages in a laboratory. Around the 35th day, pinhead-sized spores become “seedstock.” They’re grown on a special string that is eventually unraveled into the sea on long lines.  In an interview by Marciniec on Wild Food Girl, Yarish outlined how the seaweed grows 3-6 feet below the water level. It takes in nutrients from December to January.  Then, when sunlight increases from late February through May, rapid growth occurs, with individual plants increasing to as long as 8-9 feet.  Growth duration is four to six months.

Benefits of seaweed farming

Seaweed farming offers many positive outcomes.  It’s as much about coastal resource management as anything. Much like shellfish, seaweed is a nutrient bioextractor. That means what, exactly, in regular terms?  Seaweed removes harmful nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon from the water. The habitat for seaweed farming already exists in the oceans.  The result of seaweed farming is that the marine ecosystem is left healthier than how it was found. Also, because much food that is consumed in the U.S. is nutrient poor, the concentrated minerals in seaweed make them some of the most nutritious plants on earth. Finally, aquaculture may be the future of fishing. “Kelp farming is giving people from the fishing industry the opportunity to have new, viable careers,” Yarish said.

Looking ahead, Yarish continues to research ways to better protect ocean environments. His recent work focuses on how seaweed and ocean biomass will be a solution to future energy problems. “I pass on all knowledge to the new farmers and that is essential to the success of our industry,” he said.

Photo credit: jonkriz via Foter.com / CC BY

 

 

About the Author

writes from her home in Chepachet, RI, where she advocates with her lake association for chemical-free solutions to eradicate invasive species. She’s an organic gardener, nature lover, and semi-vegetarian (no red meat since 1980) who draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+