Bull kelp, often found washed up on Vancouver Island’s seashores, not only makes a fine plaything for kids at the beach, but also has fronds that can add flavour to pickled preserves.
So far, the species isn’t being eyed locally for its commercial potential, but several other kelp species native to Island waters are already under cultivation and part of a budding local seaweed aquaculture industry the Pacific Seaweed Industry Association is working to grow.
Pacific Seaweed is a non-profit association working to develop awareness about the benefits from and diverse uses for seaweed. The association collaborates with industry stakeholders to develop educational material and new technology, promotes innovation and advocates to government for help to support the industry.
Mark Smith, Pacific Seaweed president and CEO, presented the economic and environmental benefits and diversity of products that can be derived from cultivating seaweed at the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance’s State of the Island Economic Summit on Wednesday, Oct. 26.
Smith said commercial seaweed cultivation holds economic opportunities and job creation for Island communities and First Nations plus environmental benefits for industries researching new tools and products to fight climate change.
“We believe, from a Canadian perspective, we could build the whole industry here,” Smith said.
The industry includes growers, product processors, distribution and marketing companies and exporters to off-Island markets. Seaweed products, he said, could have impacts on climate change through other industries, such as seaweed mixed into cattle feed. Smith said a small percentage of seaweed in a traditional cattle diet could have “monumental” methane-reduction impacts.
He said as well, a company on the mainland is working with UBC on a packaging material made from seaweed and wood fibre and pulp waste.
Taking advantage of growing demand for cultivated seaweed means scaling up all areas of the industry, Smith said, adding that the U.S., specifically Alaska, has already done so. Scotland has invested $100 million in its seaweed industry and the Asian industry is huge, Smith said, so B.C. will have to quickly get into the game to be competitive.
Cascadia Seaweed, based in Sidney, bills itself as the largest kelp cultivator in Canada and raises seaweed from farms around the Island. It lists on its website other markets for seaweed that include fertilizer, biostimulants (which enhance nutrient uptake and nutrient use efficiency in crops), human food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, bioplastics and more. However, the company says there is a global shortage for the product, harvesting of wild seaweed has been capped and the price for seaweed in Asia, where 95 per cent of seaweed farms are located, has increased more than 100 per cent since 2017.
“We have to be at scale,” said Bill Collins, Cascadia Seaweed chairperson. “Scale is a very interesting problem because the general public are really worried about industrialization of the coastal zone and exploitation beyond the limits of the carrying capacity of the ocean. Because, in most people’s views, when people say ‘scale’ they think of China or Malaysia scales where there’s seaweed farms that are 15 kilometres on a side. That’s not the context by which the industry is growing in British Columbia.”
Collins said the company’s target is 50,000 hectares by 2040, or the equivalent of 50 average-size farms in Saskatchewan. That would be enough to be used as an additive toward feeding three to five million cattle and avoid nearly two megatonnes of methane emissions into the atmosphere, he said.
“Two megatonnes is two per cent of Canada’s total agriculture emissions today, so one company can generate that if we use the oceans correctly in partnerships,” Collins said.
There are examples of best practices to be learned from competitors, but there are also lessons to be taken from B.C.’s history with salmon farming and that industry’s environmental impacts. Collins said there are opposing views to farming seaweed at an industrial scale, but said overall, current scientific knowlege suggests the positives outweigh the negatives.
“From our learnings, we now know that we can’t just make these grandiose statements about benefits,” he said. “They have to be backed up with science and the science today tells us that there’s a net positive benefit.”
Collins said most importantly, commercial seaweed farming should informed by knowledge of the industry’s First Nations partners.
“Because they know best what’s best for the environment because they’re living on the water and living close to the water,” he said. “So industry has to be executed in partnership with our First Nations. We think that will be a large statement on what’s good for the planet and what’s not good for the planet.”