Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

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NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. We manage millions of square miles of ocean (almost 100,000 miles of coastline), support a $244 billion fishing industry, and protect and rebuild endangered marine species and habitats. It’s a huge job. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

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Dive In With NOAA Fisheries Podcast Series

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Discover the versatility of seaweed and the contributions of seaweed farming—or seaweed aquaculture—to working waterfronts and environmental sustainability.
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0:00:00.0 John Sheehan: I will admit that seaweed wasn't something that I thought about very often outside of sushi or possibly while swimming in a lake. But my perspective has changed because besides being a nutritious, versatile, and ubiquitous little organism, seaweed aquaculture, as in farming seaweed as a crop has massive potential economically for working waterfronts and small-business owners and as an environmentally sustainable practice. This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries, I'm John Sheehan, and today we're discussing seaweed, the miracle plant.

0:00:35.0 Brianna Shaughnessy: They're not plants.

0:00:36.7 JS: They're not plants?

0:00:39.0 BS: No, they're macro algae.

0:00:41.2 JS: That's interesting.

0:00:42.0 BS: They're different because of how they photosynthesize and how their cell structure is set up.

0:00:44.9 JS: This is my guest, Dr. Brianna Shaughnessy, a communications specialist for NOAA Fisheries, who coordinates activities to enhance the public's understanding of seafood. A lot of her background surprise, surprise, deals with seaweed.

0:00:57.0 BS: I'm actually a kelp ecologist by training.

0:01:01.0 JS: Her doctoral research dealt with kelp farming in the northeast.

0:01:05.2 BS: Specifically sugar kelp farming in the New England region.

0:01:09.0 JS: Seaweed, it turns out, is everywhere.

0:01:10.5 BS: Seaweed is in everybody's houses, you might not know that it's in some of the products that you have in your kitchen and in your bathroom cabinets. It's used in fertilizers, animal feed, cosmetics.

0:01:24.5 JS: It can be used to create alternatives to plastic packaging, something called bioplastics.

0:01:27.8 BS: Things like plastic wrap and containers that are created with seaweed-based products. They degrade quicker, so it's just an opportunity to have a more sustainable way to package our foods.

0:01:38.1 JS: And as a food source, it's been described as a super food.

0:01:42.2 BS: Seaweeds have all kinds of nutritious macronutrients and minerals in them, they're a great source of iodine, there's a bunch of B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

0:01:55.0 JS: And it turns out that in addition to being good for you, it's also good to grow it, it's good for the environment.

0:02:02.3 BS: Correct. Native and indigenous communities around the globe have been harvesting and cultivating seaweed for, again, both its medicinal and culinary uses for time immemorial, but here in the United States, it's a fairly new industry, we haven't exactly been growing it here for domestic uses. So those farms for seaweeds have a really impressive array of opportunities based on their low and sometimes positive impact on the environment and tend to be a really great crop for communities that are looking to be good stewards of the environment.

0:02:37.9 JS: Yeah, because these seaweed farms, they create habitat, they sequester carbon from the atmosphere, it's like big win-wins.

0:02:47.5 BS: So similar to growing plants on land, seaweeds grow by soaking up light and nutrients from their surrounding environment, which is the water column, because the nutrients that seaweed need are already in that water column, sometimes in excess from pollution, it's a crop that doesn't need any land or freshwater or fertilizer or even pesticides to grow, so that's why it's considered a low-impact crop. And then the seaweeds just being in the water themselves provide habitat for the animals that are living around those seaweed farms. They can seek shelter, they can eat the seaweed if they even want to. So it's a really a win-win situation because the crop grows, it actively removes carbon from the oceans, it reduces ocean acidification around that area and the process, and then it also improves oxygen levels and habitat for species around there.

0:03:41.8 JS: And as if that weren't already good enough, it also provides fishermen additional uses for their existing waters.

0:03:51.3 BS: Correct. So as fishermen go into their slow season in the winter, seaweed actually grows in the winter, so it is a great crop for them to diversify their income. We also are facing a lot of impacts on these fisheries sectors from climate change, so some of the populations that they're harvesting are shifting their ranges, seaweed is an opportunity for these folks to look at a different possible harvest to continue to make a living within these working waterfront communities in a sustainable way for them. Fishermen are innovative thinkers, they can lay their own moorings, they have their boats and their ropes already. And it's really exciting to see a lot of younger folks coming into this seaweed sector, especially women, folks that are generationally coming from families that are working-waterfront families. And they're seeing seaweed as a great opportunity for them to see themselves as part of that working waterfront community that their families have been a part of but in a way that is more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

0:05:02.1 JS: And all of this falls under the heading of "aquaculture." right? Of seafood farming and seaweed farming, seaweed aquaculture, as you think you mentioned, it's globally been a thing, but is only now taking off in the United States. And despite the name "seaweed," they're not plants. What does that mean?

0:05:27.2 BS: Yeah. So seaweed is a macro algae, they have a few differences in their cellular structure and how they photosynthesize, which make them not exactly comparable to land plants. But they are divided into three categories, browns, reds, and greens. And there are globally over 10,000 species of seaweed out there, and about 45 of them are targeted for farming.

0:05:58.5 JS: Okay, browns, reds, and greens. How would we know each of these? Do you have examples of a brown or red or green?

0:06:07.0 BS: Yes. So brown seaweeds of the kelp variety account for about 85% of farmed edible seaweed products in the world. You might know them as kombu, but around here, farms mostly grow a variety called sugar kelp. And kelps grow really fast in the winter, so farmers are really interested in them. And they're often because of that dried and powdered into supplements in breads and nutritional smoothies, but they also have a subtle briny taste with an umami flavor to them, so that makes them a great ingredient for soup stocks and seaweed salads and noodles. In comparison, green seaweeds are jokingly referred to as the cilantro of the ocean because of their distinct mineral taste. Either you love it or you hate it. One of the popular green seaweeds here in North America is sea lettuce, and those green seaweeds can be used in recipes for dressings or chimichurris. And then if you've ever eaten sushi, then you've eaten red seaweed called nori. Red seaweeds have the highest protein content and they're more of a thickening agent and they secrete something called agar.

0:07:20.1 BS: And they can also, depending on the species, secrete something called carrageenan. And those things are used as thickening agents in ice cream, toothpaste, a lot of breweries use it in their beer, and they can also be dried and eaten as a tangy and salty snack or as a seasoning on something like pizza.

0:07:40.0 JS: And so getting back to these seaweed farms, you mentioned that brown kelp, sugar kelp is the most commonly farmed?

0:07:49.5 BS: Correct. So in the US, commercial seaweed cultivation started with kelps, mostly in Maine, and it was an opportunity to really alleviate pressures on wild seaweed populations due to wild harvesting of those species in the area. So it's really taken off in recent years, again mostly in Maine and Alaska, which have dozens of farms and more in the works. Maine has consistently led commercial seaweed harvest in the US. They reported a million pounds of harvest in 2022, and that is more than a 20-fold increase since 2017. So really, in the past five years, they've upscaled their ability to harvest and distribute seaweed.

0:08:33.7 JS: And so you mentioned that explosive growth in Maine. How fast is it growing in the US?

0:08:41.3 BS: So despite this increase in domestic production in Maine, the United States remains one of the largest importers of seaweed for human consumption. For example, in 2019, the US imported about $95 million worth of seaweed products from other countries, and it only exported about $18 million worth of seaweed products to other countries. So NOAA and our partners are really looking into the siting requirements and infrastructure and best management practices for sustainably expanding this industry to close that trade gap so that we can have sustainable domestic products of seaweed in the United States.

0:09:21.1 JS: I think related to NOAA's interest in stimulating growth in the industry, there are these things called "aquaculture opportunity areas." What are those?

0:09:29.7 BS: An aquaculture opportunity area or AOA is a defined geographic region that NOAA has evaluated through both spatial analyses and programmatic National Environmental Policy Act processes. And they've determined that that area is environmentally, socially, and economically appropriate to support multiple commercial aquaculture operations. So this June, in partnership with the State of Alaska, NOAA Fisheries announced the selection of Alaska as the next location to begin work to identify AOAs in that region.

0:10:07.1 JS: So Alaska is really the next site of a lot of growth. What's happening there?

0:10:11.6 BS: Yeah. So in Alaska, the effort to identify AOAs will be focused in state waters and NOAA will only consider invertebrates, so shellfish, sea cucumber, and then seaweed farming. And careful siting consideration within this process will ensure that we're minimizing conflicts with other ocean users and cultural and environmental resources, and maintain our commitment to that ocean stewardship as we sustainably expand these shellfish and seaweed farming sectors in Alaska.

0:10:43.8 JS: So Brie, you brought in some examples of organizations that are really investing in seaweed aquaculture. The first one is in Alaska, which as we were just saying, is a region that's growing its seaweed footprint even while its indigenous population has been cultivating seaweed for generations. What's going on with it?

0:11:03.4 BS: The Native Conservancy is one of those organizations, it was established in 2003. And they're really working to empower the Alaska native people's as the seaweed farming industry expands in the region. They wanna make sure that that industry is set up for success, especially within these Alaska Native communities. And in order to be successful, those farmers need to know that they have a place to send off their harvest, they need buyers for their products, they need infrastructure in order to be able to meet the regulations for harvesting and processing. And so this group, the Native Conservancy, is really working to be a central hub for the communities to come together and build that successful industry.

0:11:48.0 JS: So here's Tesia Bobrycki with Native Conservancy.

0:11:53.1 Tesia Bobrycki: Native Conservancy is a nonprofit organization based in Cordova, Alaska created simply to be a land trust, a holding company for the EAC people to purchase or retain or have access to a lot of their ancestral lands. Since that time, it has evolved due to responses from the community of different needs. One of them has been an interest in seaweed farming. Seaweed is a magical little organism, So when we first started, there was no one farming in our region, so the first couple years were spent understanding the process, figuring out how to find reproductive tissue in the wild, permitting our research sites, getting it out there, refining our arrays. And our whole mission was to make sure that the process could be simplified, the cost could be reduced, and they could actually be accessible for a small family farmer. We also have built these small seed nurseries in 40-foot shipping containers that are completely self-sufficient and can be placed in remote communities, and they can own their own seed production.

0:12:58.5 TB: And for our farmers, we provide them seed string for free for their startup years to just help them get off the ground and reduce their costs there. We also use it as a training tool. And then in addition to that, we do a lot of the permitting for native communities and native people who want to get into kelp farming. And then in addition to that, one of the most proud uses for our seaweed is, twice a month, we deliver various local traditional foods to our community. And getting to incorporate seaweed in that in a variety of forms has been something we've been very excited about. Various communities have different living relationships with seaweed, some really continue to incorporate into their diets and lifestyles, and some don't and have had that relationship severed along with a lot of other severings that happened during colonization and beyond.

0:13:52.3 TB: But the uses have been extraordinary, the more stories that I hear about it, the more I'm just blown away and overwhelmed, we think we found something new with seaweed, but we really haven't. One of the initial ones that we talk about a lot that come from EAC, is what we call now a kelp cake. And it's this seaweed pressed with berries and eulachon oil that's like pressed over and over again and preserved. And then that can be taken on like long canoe trips. And our president Dune says it was the first power bar, highly nutritious, fatty and delicious. But it was also used for a lot of different food sources, so it was eaten in a whole ton of different ways. The main one that I see currently is for soil additives. So even now, people will run out and grab some bulk kelp and throw it on top of their soil and then they let it degrade in the sun and then eventually mix it into their soil. And it is an incredible soil additive. Some people even used the fronds from bulk kelp as a sealant for their canoes, which is one of the properties in seaweed that is now useful for bioplastics, the uses have been absolutely endless.

0:15:04.0 TB: It is fun to think back when we started, and we would talk about seaweed and people would crunch their face at us like, "Seaweed, you're doing what?" And now everyone talks about seaweed.

0:15:17.7 JS: That was Tesia Bobrycki with Native Conservancy in Alaska. And Brie, you have another example of a group in Maine, which as we mentioned, is the largest producer of seaweed right now. Tell us about this group.

0:15:31.0 BS: Yeah, so Atlantic Sea Farms is a woman-run vertically integrated company out of Maine. They are really taking still that community perspective on expanding the seaweed farming industry. What they do is they buy up the harvest from the local seaweed farmers in the Maine region and then they create things that you can find in popular retailers in your area, such as seaweed, salads, kelp kimchi, kelp burgers made with local sugar kelp in the area.

0:16:04.9 JS: Okay. Here's Liz MacDonald from Atlantic Sea Farms.

0:16:09.0 Liz MacDonald: Atlantic Sea Farms is located in Biddeford, Maine. And right now, we have 30 partner farmers, they work on an owner-operated model, which is built off of the commercial fishing lobster model here in Maine. And so our fishermen lease their own farm sites from the state, they are in their own name, they own all their own equipment, they have their own boats, they own their own crew, they essentially run their own business, but we partner with them, we provide all of the seaweed seedlings for free, in addition to hands-on technical assistance in trading. All the seedlings that we give our farmers, whatever they grow, we guarantee the purchase of that seaweed ahead of even outplanting their farms. We also provide assistance with permitting and leasing because it's a really robust and rigorous process here in the State of Maine, that we're proud to have. But our partner farmers are the sole reason that our company thrives and why we exist as a whole.

0:17:06.1 LM: Once the seaweed is harvested, I show up to the dock in a box truck and load all the kelp and drive it down to Bidderford, Maine to our processing facility. It is washed, it is blanched, and then at that point, it can go into many different pathways. One of the primary ways that it goes into is into our fermentation room, we do a fermented seaweed salad, a fermented gochujang, spicy seaweed, and then we also do a Sea-Chi, which is a play on traditional kimchi. Another avenue that the seaweed can take is going into becoming our sea veggie burgers, we do a sesame ginger and a basil pesto, we also produce a pureed kelp cube. And then we have wholesale and retail outlets as well for seaweeds that are either in rose reds or dried.

0:18:00.6 LM: When you go and get lobster on a menu somewhere in the middle of the country, it says "Maine lobster," and we want it to say "Maine kelp" as well. And that's a goal that we're working towards at a very strong clip, and that's because of the determination and exceptional skill set of the Maine fishing community and the workforce that we have here. More so than ever, people want something that is sustainable, that they can pass down to their future generations and have a way of life that their children and grandchildren can also emulate, that feels like something that their forefathers have done.

0:18:39.5 JS: And that was Liz MacDonald from Atlantic Sea Farms. So Brie, seaweed has been a big part of your life, you've researched it a lot for your doctoral thesis. Why seaweed? Like what's the connection?

0:18:57.8 BS: That inspiration came from growing up on Cape Cod, having family and friends in the working waterfront industry, whether they were boat captains, shell fishermen, striped bass fishermen. And as they started to talk to me about my wild kelp research, I started to notice a trend in them asking, "I've heard people are kelp farming around here now, should we start a farm?" And that really piqued my interest because I've always wanted my research to help out the communities that I was raised in and really be tangible data that can be used by people other than academics in their universities.

0:19:39.8 JS: And so with that in mind, what do you see as the future of the industry?

0:19:45.3 BS: There is so much that we are still learning about, not just seaweed farming, but also seaweed science. Seaweed farms, just like anything else in the ocean, are not immune to the stressors coming out of climate change, it's continuing to alter the conditions in which the seaweed is grown in the water. So there's a lot of incentive right now to take a step back and look at the broader implications of the challenges and opportunities within the industry. How can we mobilize what we know from all of the great research along our coasts and really plug that into a holistic approach for building a more resilient coastal economy with an expanding seaweed farming sector. In order to do that, we need a lot of voices and a lot of different perspectives at the table and we can't be scared of discussions about compromise and tensions.

0:20:35.2 BS: And seaweed is a new-ish crop here in the US, it's an opportunity to expand jobs and food security with an industry that has a low environmental footprint. And it provides some much needed hope to these working waterfront communities that are facing the impacts of these climate stressors in really big ways. So I think the future is bright, this sector has some opportunities to innovate and really lead the way in sustainable food production, and I think that's what makes it so exciting to so many communities.

0:21:08.3 JS: Well, Dr. Brianna Shaughnessy, thanks so much for talking with me.

0:21:10.9 BS: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

0:21:13.4 JS: Dr. Brianna Shaughnessy is a communications specialist for NOAA Fisheries. You can learn more about US seaweed aquaculture at our website, fisheries.noaa.gov, where you can also find links to organizations such as the National Seaweed Hub, a resource for the domestic seaweed aquaculture industry. Special thanks to Tesia Bobrycki of Native Conservancy and Liz MacDonald of Atlantic Sea Farms. Tesia spoke to us from her houseboat in Cordova, Alaska, and if you listen carefully, you can hear seagulls in the background. And after listening to these interviews, I had to try this kelp, so I picked up a jar of seaweed salad for the family, and I thought it was really tasty. My kids...

0:21:55.6 S5: I like it, but it's like tartish.

0:22:02.8 S6: For me, it's like really, really tart.

0:22:04.5 JS: Okay, I'm still working on them, but I liked it, it's pretty good. I'm John Sheehan, and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.


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Last updated by Office of Communications on 07/20/2023