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What's Up With Seaweed Farming

This is my inaugural blog entry. As such, I thought it worthwhile to share a brief overview of the current seaweed farming scene in New England and the risks and opportunities that face current and potential seaweed farmers.

I am contacted on a regular basis by folks interested in seaweed farming. I also teach many of the classes in our seaweed farmer certification program which has attracted students from all walks of life, including fishermen, professionals, recent graduates, and committed environmentalists. Additionally, I provide consulting services to individuals and companies that are interested in seaweed farming and creating seaweed products. Also, I am also a partner in Springtide Seaweed with Sarah Redmond-- who is the first and most vocal advocate of seaweed farming in Maine. Springtide Seaweed operates the largest organic seaweed farm in North America as well as operates the only commercial organic seaweed nursery. I am thus deeply involved in all aspects of the seaweed industry spanning over ten years.

Seaweed farming has been receiving tremendous exposure in the press and media as a potential triple bottom line industry, i.e., an industry that can support: (1) People, the social equity bottom line; (2) Planet, the environmental bottom line; and (3) Profit, the economic bottom line. I agree this is the potential for our industry. Unfortunately, we are far from realizing this potential.

Let’s take a look at each element of the triple bottom line-- in reverse order as for many folks if there is no economic benefit seaweed farming will not be an option for them.

Bottom Line Three: Profit

Currently, there is no established market for farmed seaweed. This means that when it comes to profit we are on shaky ground. Whoever enters the seaweed farming industry today is taking a real financial risk. Whether the risk has a corresponding reward is yet to be determined.

Here are some of the issues that are pain points in our path to economic viability:

  1. Standards. Most customers of any food product want and need two things: (1) a certificate of analysis (COA) and (2) a letter of guarantee (LOG). The COA is required by many FDA and USDA regulations and documents certain characteristics and attributes of seaweed or other food components covered by the COA. This may include heavy metals content, allergens, and other contaminants. The FDA requires that these COA results be verifiable by the end user through independent testing. A LOG is also required by many FDA and USDA regulations. This letter guarantees that the seaweed or other food component has been produced in accordance with appropriate industry best practices including HACCP and CGMP programs; is suitable and safe for its intended use; and is neither misbranded or adulterated. Most current seaweed farmers cannot provide either of these documents. Product testing for a COA costs over $1,000 and must be done by lot. This means that even a small seaweed farmer may have to pay $3,000 to $10,000 per harvest season in testing fees. As regards the LOG, few if any growers are utilizing an approved HACCP or CGMP, and as a result cannot provide a letter of guarantee at all.

    • Current Risks-Producers: Examples. Several companies are currently producing processed seaweed products, including kelp jerky, blanched kelp noodles, kelp smoothie cubes and kelp seasoning. Most of these products are produced with kelp sourced from a range of small seaweed farms with no product testing and no implemented HACCP or CGMP programs. Some of these products also are made with non-kelp seaweed species and are thus adulterated under FDA regulations. The companies making these products are small and are taking significant risks to grow their businesses. They are also risking the health and safety of their customers. The largest risk to the industry form these activities is that someone gets sick or dies from these products and the entire industry is put at risk through association.

    • Current Risk-Farmers: Examples. It is arguable that it is the producers that need to comply with FDA and USDA regulations, it also arguable that farmers selling to these producers, knowing its intended use, are responsible for the safety of their seaweed. I know of one producer of kelp noodles that has its farmers pack up its seaweed in non-food grade construction type trash bags and ships them without refrigeration to its processing facility. The liability of the producer is obvious, but the farmer packing seaweed in garbage bags without an approved food safety program in place is exposing themselves to potential liability. Also, there are farmers growing seaweed in “closed” or contaminated waters that are selling seaweed that has potentially high chemical and/or biological contamination. These farmers are knowingly selling products into the stream of commerce that may be hazardous. The liability, in this case, is unambiguous.

    • Risk Mitigation. The Maine Seaweed Exchange (MSE) offers an MSE Certified Product Program that will certify that approved seaweed products have complied with industry standards for safety and biosecurity. The MSE is also working with industry and regulators to develop and implement appropriate HACCP and CGMP protocols for seaweed growers and producers.

  2. Lack of Professionalism. Many non-profits, such as the highly publicized Greenwave, are endorsing seaweed as a key crop for a new generation of ocean farmers. The problem is that many of these programs focus on a form of seaweed farming that is economically unsustainable, creates unrealistic financial expectations, and encourages the use of poor growing practices. As Greenwave states on its website: “...anyone with 20 acres, a boat, and $20,000 can be up and running within one year.” Greenwave founder Bren Smith has also claimed that new farmers will “able to net up to $200,000 or $300,000 per farm and employ up to 10 people.” These claims are unsupportable, but they are attracting interest from new farmers that are being induced to invest in ocean farms that will not generate any net income for the foreseeable future.

    • Example. The MSE has developed an economic model of seaweed farming using real-world figures and established best practices. This model puts the cost of gear for a 20-acre seaweed farm at roughly $50,000. Add lease fees, seed expense, and labor costs, and the average farm would lose money, excluding capital costs, unless it can exceed $0.50/pound wet and a yield of over 7 pounds per linear feet of line. Capital costs would never be recovered unless the $0.50/pound wet price is exceeded. Smaller farms face much more challenging economics as the economy of scale are not realized.

    • Solutions. We need to train professional seaweed farmers. This is the driving force behind the MSE Seaweed Farmer Certification Program. We are giving potential and current seaweed farmers the skills necessary to make sound farming decisions based on realistic financial models and forecasts.

  3. Market Aggregation. Many seaweed farmers are quite small. Unless they can aggregate their seaweed crop at what is the equivalent of a grain elevator with access to product testing and market contracts these farmers will be excluded from the broader marketplace. The MSE is attempting to match buyers and sellers of farmed seaweed, and hopes to eventually provide aggregation services. This step will be crucial to supporting smaller seaweed farmers.

  4. Post-Harvest Processing. There is currently no post-harvest processing available to either dry or otherwise stabilize harvested seaweed so that it can be aggregated and sold. This deficiency in the supply chain is the largest obstacle to profitability for seaweed farmers. The capital expenditures required to address this need is substantial, estimated at $1-2.5 million, and is exacerbated by the wide geographical distribution of seaweed farms. This creates the challenge of harvesting and getting the seaweed to a processing facility within 24 hours-- a task that may not be possible for many farmers and if feasible will carry substantial costs.

  5. Wild harvesters. There remains substantial wild seaweed biomass in the water. The harvest of these wild resources is poorly regulated, if they are regulated at all. Thus, wild harvesters can potentially harvest and sell seaweed at very low cost as compared to farmed seaweed depressing seaweed prices to the point that farmed seaweed is no longer an attractive option. Of course, wild harvesters have had a poor track record in other fisheries in managing their resources, so it can be expected that seaweed wild harvesters will overharvest the seaweed beds as the demand for seaweed increases. This overharvesting will have great economic and ecological impacts. Seaweed farming will depend on common sense regulations of wild harvested seaweed to assure the survival of our seaweed resources and permit the opportunity for seaweed aquaculture to take root.

These are a few of the challenges seaweed farmers face. Anyone entering seaweed farming now is taking a substantial risk. I think the risk is worth it if we can solve some of the problems raised above. The MSE is trying to do just that. Regrettably, many current farmers are not taking the long view on these issues, and are not working together to grow our industry. This may well be the greatest risk to developing a viable seaweed industry in New England and beyond.

Bottom Line Two: Planet

This is an easy one for seaweed. Seaweed is a plant that acts essentially as a filter feeder taking nutrients and other elements from the water. It can sequester carbon and nitrogen, clean waters of heavy metals, enhance local ecologies, reduce the effects of ocean acidification, and create habitat.

There are challenges though.

Seaweed farming gear and equipment can become entangled with marine species such as whales and turtles. The gear can break loose and become a hazard to other species as well as interfere with human activities. These risks can be mitigated, but this will increase the cost of seaweed farming and thus the cost of the seaweed produced on seaweed farms.

Biosecurity is a real risk. Seaweed nurseries can unintentionally distribute and introduce non-indigenous species and invasive pests and other non-native species. There are grants under the DOE Mariner program that are attempting to grow “super-seaweeds” by selective breeding of non-local seaweeds that are then introduced into the wild thus endangering local seaweed populations and entire ecosystems. Once compromised our local marine ecology will be changed forever.

The MSE is working to address these issues. We are committed to biosecurity and are working with regulators to assure all seaweed seed is from local seed stock. We are developing BMP (best management practices) that will minimize entanglements and conflicts with marine species and humans. We are also supporting research in nursery technology that will eliminate the introduction of invasive and non-native species.

Bottom Line One: People

Seaweed farming provides an opportunity to support our local marine communities and families displaced by the closure of our wild fisheries. It is a winter crop that does not conflict with most other fisheries and utilizes gear and equipment that many commercial fishermen have ready access to. It is a wonderful supplemental business opportunity for current fishermen-- if we can solve the aggregation problem, of course.

Seaweed is highly nutritious and has often been characterized as a “superfood.” It tastes good too! Providing access to safe and affordable seaweed products can increase health and vitality in our communities.

Seaweed aquaculture can also be a jumping off point for other aquaculture ventures, such as shellfish or fin fish.

Seaweed aquaculture can clearly benefit individuals, families, and communities.

A Cautionary Tale

We face significant challenges in developing seaweed aquaculture as a sustainable industry. The MSE is working to overcome these challenges, but we have limited resources and are racing the clock. The race I am referring to is what I call the “Seaweed Gold Rush.”

Demand for seaweed is growing as its benefits to the triple bottom line are highlighted and discussed in the media. This has attracted the attention of big money.

Over the past few months, I have met with investors from Korea, the Netherlands, England and the United States. All these investors are looking to make significant investments in the seaweed industry. Only the investors from Korea had any seaweed experience whatsoever. The rest were regurgitating the media hype presented by Greenwave and others.

Greenwave itself has formed a commercial arm called Sea Greens Farms to capitalize on the seaweed gold rush. This well-funded enterprise is recruiting new farmers to be plugged into a commercial venture that is intended to make its investors millions. (Note: I was a consultant to this group-- see the Litigation tab on the MSE website for more background.)

Another investor group from New York is raising millions to create large-scale aquaculture farms in New England. Not one member of their team has seaweed experience. They lack any vision for marketing the seaweed they will grow. They essentially wish to lock up leases and resources to be monetized at a later date when markets are more firmly established.

A new venture from England that plans to produce food and agriculture products in Europe has approached us looking for 50-70 metric tons of either wild or farmed kelp. This group was looking to pay $0.20 per pound wet for seaweed that was to be frozen and shipped to Europe for processing. Essentially mirroring the exploitation of New England’s marine resources that occurred with wild fisheries.

The trends are clear. Big money is being attracted to our industry at an alarming rate. No one is offering to address the pain points to growing our marketplace organically, rather they seek to control and monetize resources. This will leave our local communities without the infrastructure or resources to become self-sufficient and grow.

These challenges are real. So are the opportunities. Through thoughtful and responsible industry-led initiatives, we can all have an impact on the future of seaweed aquaculture and assure the potential of ocean farming is realized in a sustainable and responsible manner.

I feel we are doing our part. Of course, we can use help. Please feel free to reach out to me to discuss how you can support our work and support the blue-green economy. I can be reached at trey@seaweedexchange.com.

I am optimistic that the work of the MSE will benefit our planet by protecting our seaweed resources, support farmers and our local marine communities with good paying jobs, and create best practices that will heal our planet and feed our families. A true triple bottom line.

By Trey Angera, MSE Executive Director​

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