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Seaweed Aquaculture's Future

Is Seaweed Aquaculture Worth It?

Seaweed farms are popping up everywhere. In the United States, Maine and Alaska seem to be leading the way with new and increasingly larger seaweed farms.

This trend is driven by what appears to be an ever-increasing awareness of the benefits of seaweed and is largely propelled by a handful of non-profits, academic studies, and social media. These benefits include the mitigation of climate change and ocean acidification, the health benefits of seaweed, and the vast range of potential uses for seaweed and its derivatives.

With the awareness of seaweed rising, investment in the industry is also increasing. In some ways this increase parallels the gold rush mentality of the past—a risk identified back in 2014 at the World Ocean Summit. We are seeing the opportunistic growth in seaweed farming and wild harvesting that may put our ocean’s at risk and undermine the growth of a sustainable seaweed aquaculture industry.

The Maine Aquaculture Industry Benchmark Report (July 2020) was recently released by the Maine Aquaculture Association. This report makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the state of the aquaculture industry in Maine (and beyond). This report includes the following data table:

Lots of good data here, but I would draw your attention to the pounds of seaweed harvested per linear foot of longline: 2.7 pounds. By way of context, the Springtide Seaweed, LLC farms in Down East Maine average 2-3 times that yield. So, what gives? Why are yields so low?

I would suggest that non-profits such as Greenwave and the Island Institute have created the perception that seaweed farming is relatively easy and has a low cost of entry. This perception has certainly encouraged folks to try seaweed farming, as have companies such as Atlantic Sea Farms that depend upon a network of small seaweed farmers to obtain a low cost supply of seaweed. Is this a good thing?

The Benchmark Study mentioned above found that: “The per-lb cost of production (breakeven price above total cost) ($4.86/lb) exceeded the average market price paid for seaweed ($0.48/lb).” So, on average, the seaweed farmers who participated in the benchmark study lost $4.38 per pound. In fact, only one grower in the study actually made a profit with another essentially breaking even.

So why is this situation so bleak? Clearly outside of the United States seaweed aquaculture is a thriving and profitable business. Why is our domestic industry facing such challenges?

I think we can look at a few factors:

  1. Best Practices and Technology: The basis for most seaweed farms in the US can trace their technology and methods to the Kelp Farming Manual (2013), also known as the Ocean Approved Manual. This manual remains a valuable resource to new seaweed farmers. Its focus though is on small scale farming and reflects a process that is neither scalable nor truly relevant today.  I would argue that the manual is a wonderful “hobby farmer” guide and is increasingly irrelevant to modern commercial growers. Success today and in the future will require updated aquaculture technologies and intensive aquaculture training.  This is why the MSE has partnered with the University of Massachusetts to offer a comprehensive Seaweed Aquaculture Certification Program.  New seaweed farmers need comprehensive training as well as access to current technologies to succeed.
  2. Yields: Seaweed farmers need higher yields. Growing 2.7 pounds of seaweed per linear foot is a non-starter and makes no financial sense. Why are yields so low?
    1. Seed: Farmer access to quality seed is very limited.  Many farmers get their seed for free—and we can intuit what the value of free stuff is. Getting free seed that is not tailored to your growing area is simply poor husbandry. At Springtide Seaweed we have created a nursery system that produces organic seed that is tailored to a variety of growing regions in Maine and produces seed from local cultivars supplied by farmers.  This approach has produced amazing results.  Of course, this costs money, but just like land-based farmers that invest in the best seed possible, so must seaweed farmers.
    2. Farm Siting: It is a myth that seaweed does not need fertilizers—in fact in Asia and in open water sites fertilizers and the introduction of nutrients is part of the growing process.  Just like land-based plants seaweed needs nutrients to grow. Similarly, seaweed needs favorable growing conditions such as light and appropriate water temperatures, as well as to not be near potentially toxic influences. Many seaweed farms are just located in areas that are not conducive to growing seaweed.  Just because seaweed grows does not mean it grows sufficiently well to support a farm and farmer. Farm sites must be carefully evaluated to assure they are well suited to seaweed aquaculture. This usually means intensive data collection and/or the installation of a test farm to evaluate growing conditions. Not an inexpensive process.
    3. Farm Design:  The common longline system utilized by most seaweed farms is based on the agricultural row crop model.  As you may have guessed, this model is not ideal for sea-based aquaculture. Currents, tides, light, crop density, and many other parameters need to be accounted for in farm design.  Alternate farm designs that reflect the farm site’s conditions have dramatically higher yields and lower losses.
  3. Processing:  We still desperately need processing capacity.  Anyone who invests in seaweed farms without investing in processing is setting up new farmers for failure. The MSE has established the Seaweed Collaborative to support farmers and processors, especially seaweed drying operations by guaranteeing a fair market price for dried seaweed along with access to advanced training programs.  Anything less than $1 per pound wet weight is simply not sustainable and is arguably exploitive to many small growers. The MSE is assuring this floor is maintained and often exceeded.

Another except from the Benchmark Report is worth reading:

The analysis of seaweed farm benchmarks shows that seaweed farming currently entails a number of risks that include that of total crop loss. It would strongly behoove anyone considering seaweed farming to enter slowly and try out a few lines in different locations to get a good feel as to what production levels are likely to be. Expansion should be very slow at first. Low levels of investment would be preferable until the farmer develops a good basis of understanding what costs and production volumes are likely to be over time. Assuming debt capital at a time when seaweed farming is clearly in a developmental stage with many un-answered production and marketing questions appears to be unwise. This is especially true for an individual whose family income would depend on such a new and risky crop. The data from this study do not support going into seaweed production on a full-time basis to support a family until yields on the lease stabilize at a level that, on average, is much greater than those reported in this study. Seaweed production may have potential as a secondary source of income for fishermen and lobstermen who own most of the equipment required. Nevertheless, long-term planning for repairs and replacement costs for major capital expenses of boats, buoys, rope, and mooring gear would still be needed. Approaching seaweed production as an experimental crop would still be advisable, with an initial step of gaining experience with several test lines in the first year or two.

I remain very optimistic about the future of seaweed farming. This optimism stems from the belief that new technologies and increased training will permit seaweed farmers to be better stewards of their farm, our planet, as well as better business people. This will require serious investments by serious market participants. Based on what I see in Asia and Europe, I am hopeful that we in the US will also see some significant investment from investors that see past the hype to the real value seaweed offers as a sustainable crop and product.

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