The kelp is slippery, greenish brown and tastes like the sea.
But the people hauling the seaweed out of the ocean on an overcast day in April don’t pause for a sample. They’re cutting it from a line as it rolls up on a hydraulic drum and letting it drop into oversized totes, moving a new container into place as each one is filled.
This harvest, taking place north of Tofino in Clayoquot Sound, is the biggest yet for Cascadia Seaweed Corp. Based in Sidney, B.C., Cascadia started farming seaweed in 2019 with a couple of small test plots. This year, it expects to harvest 50 tonnes of kelp from seven sites. It has a nursery where it grows seed, works with a processing plant in Nanaimo and, last November, launched its first commercial product, a seasoned spice sold under Cascadia’s Kove brand.
With research partners, it’s looking at using seaweed in agriculture feed, based on the premise that adding seaweed to cattle feed could help reduce methane emissions. (Cows produce methane when they digest their food, mostly through belching.)
For founding partner and chief executive officer Mike Williamson, seaweed production is a proverbial win-win proposition: It taps into nutritional trends, climate-change concerns, Indigenous and regional economic development, with a production cycle that doesn’t harm, and can even help, the environment. But the company is still in the start-up phase, operating primarily on investor capital. To date, it’s raised about $7-million from investors and received about $3-million worth of grants.
Other players are eyeing the same market. Seaweed cultivation is the most rapidly expanding sector in aquaculture production, United Nations University researchers said in a 2021 report. It’s being used increasingly in fertilizers, food supplements and as an alternative to plastic, with researchers looking at how seaweed polymers could be used, for example, in food packaging.
The global market amounted to US$14.7-billion in 2019. But the industry also faces significant challenges, the report said, with improvements needed to ensure that seaweed production and harvest don’t damage existing wild kelp stocks. For Cascadia, those challenges spell opportunity.
“The sector is booming,” says Mr. Williamson, who’s dressed in rain gear and a baseball cap as he keeps a close eye on the harvest.
“And we are either going to lead in North America or we are going to lag.”
Cascadia grows its kelp from seed, which is started in a nursery before being spooled out on weighted lines that hang in the ocean. Seeding typically takes place in November, and harvest in the spring. The sites are not fertilized or treated with pesticides; one of the company’s taglines is that its products grow with only sea and sunlight.
Seaweed production is regulated by the province. For its farm sites, Cascadia has pursued partnerships with First Nations, including a 2019 agreement with the Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Limited Partnership, an Indigenous-owned seafood venture whose assets include a salmon cannery in Nanaimo.
First Nations are looking for economic opportunities close to home, said Ryan Anaka, director of lands and resources for the Uchucklesaht Tribe, one of the Nuu-chah-nulth groups in the seafood partnership.
Uchucklesaht has two village sites in Barkley Sound, south of Port Alberni.
“Over time, there have been multiple industries that have operated in Barkley Sound – from commercial fishing to forestry to eco-tourism and sport fishing,” Mr. Anaka said in an interview.
“But those industries have kind of occurred and moved through the territory, taking the resources but not really [creating] any long-standing opportunities for our citizens.”
Cascadia got off on the right foot by reaching out to First Nations early, says Ken Watts, chief councillor of the Tseshaht First Nation, another Nuu-chah-nulth nation. (There are 14 Nuu-chah-nulth nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island that together have a population of about 10,000 people.)
“The fact that they [Cascadia] reached out to us is, I think, a sign of the way things are changing,” Mr. Watts said in Port Alberni.
He cites Google as an example: When the technology giant in April announced plans to build a subsea cable that will connect Canada and Asia, the company acknowledged traditional and treaty rights in B.C. and said it had partnered “every step of the way” with First Nations, including the Tseshaht.
“The private sector and all kinds different industries are reaching out to First Nations – not because they feel obligated to, but I think because they know they need us,” Mr. Watts said.
Currently, First Nations’ participation in Cascadia’s seaweed venture is relatively limited, amounting to lease payments and mostly seasonal employment. Mr. Williamson sees that model evolving to one in which participating First Nations will take over cultivation and move into potential spin-offs in manufacturing, sales and transport, with Cascadia buying the product and providing technical and marketing support.
The idea is to build not only a company, but a sector, one with local roots and long-term potential.
Cascadia has also signed an agreement with the Tsawout First Nation, which is based near Victoria. Last year, Tsawout, citing a historical treaty and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, enacted its own marine use law and issued a licence to Cascadia.
The typical process to secure a seaweed licence from the province can take up to three years, Tsawout said in a February announcement. By contrast, the Nation considered Cascadia’s pitch and issued a licence in less than five months.
Cascadia has said it wants to be farming 500 hectares within five years, and would like the province to speed up its process for getting kelp sites in the water.
The company is targeting the so-called blue economy – what the World Bank has described as the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihood and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health. Canada is developing a blue economy strategy, but it has yet to be released. A March update from federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray said consultations held last year reflected “consistent support for shellfish and aquatic plant opportunities in aquaculture, including as a means of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”
This year’s kelp harvest was trucked to Hub City Fisheries, a Nanaimo processor. In business since 1980, Hub City in peak seasons used to operate around the clock and employ up to 150 people at a time, owner Roger Paquette says.
These days, it has fewer shifts and fewer people – about 50 employees all told, Mr. Paquette says. He welcomes seaweed as another product to keep the lights on in his 12,000-square-foot plant.
On this April day, about a dozen workers are rinsing kelp and packing it in boxes to be frozen. A driver on a forklift whizzes around the plant, transferring bins of seaweed from a conveyor belt to industrial freezers.
Cascadia recently introduced new flavours of its seasoned spice and is looking at other food possibilities, including a kelp-based smoothie cube that could be tossed into a blender as part of a healthy drink. It’s talking to potential partners about other uses, such as a food additive or for industrial applications.
Then there are the cows.
For several years, Cascadia and research partners have been looking into seaweed as an agricultural food additive. Studies have shown some potential to reduce methane by adding seaweed to cow feed.
According to federal figures, crop and animal production accounted for about 10 per cent of Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
And about 40 per cent of agricultural emissions in Canada come directly from methane, with 90 per cent of that from cattle and sheep as they digest their food.
Adding seaweed to cattle feed could help with digestion, reducing methane emissions, says Spencer Serin, an instructor at Vancouver Island’s North Island College who is working with Cascadia on seaweed research.
But there are other potential benefits, including the possibility of reducing the need for other crops, such as corn and soybeans, which has a knock-on effect in terms of water, land and fertilizer use.
“Yes, we are interested in the additive potential of reducing methane when it’s used as a supplement, but we are also interested in seeing how it influences the digestion and health of the animal for other benefits,” Dr. Serin said.
In April, Cascadia was one of six companies to receive grants through the federal government’s agri-science program, landing up to $533,475 to look at three types of seaweed as an alternative feedstock for cattle.
“As we see the effects of climate change – reduced yield, decreased top soil, harder to get crops in the prairies, lot of failures – if we are going to have a sustainable model of animal agriculture, it is good to look towards other sources of protein and nutrients for the animal,” he said.
As interest in seaweed grows, there are concerns that a boom in commercial seaweed production could have unintended, harmful consequences.
Reliance on a very limited number of commercially grown species and interbreeding with wild native stocks have reduced the genetic diversity of seaweed cultivars used by the industry, the 2021 UN University report said, and overharvesting of wild stocks limits the resources to reinvigorate the gene pool.
Seaweed farms can also unintentionally introduce and spread pests and disease, the UN Report said. It added that few transparent national and international policies and standards exist to ensure quality, fair pricing, traceability and effective biosecurity, including reporting of outbreaks and quarantine procedures. But the United Nations has also flagged seaweed’s potential, saying in a 2020 paper it could provide safe and healthy food, create jobs and income in coastal communities and help fight climate change through storing carbon.
Mr. Williamson maintains that Cascadia’s current footprint is small and has ample room to expand without posing any environmental risk.
“The more you grow, to a certain extent, the better it is for the environment,” he says.
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