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Alaska’s kelp farming industry hits tricky hurdle, despite high global demand

Alf Pryor checks the lines on Nick Mangini's kelp site in Kodiak. (Tamsen Peeples)
Alf Pryor checks the lines on Nick Mangini's kelp site in Kodiak. (Tamsen Peeples)

If you take a close look, kelp can be found all over the place, from your pantry to your shower shelves: It’s in beer, vitamins, salad dressings, toothpaste, even shampoos. Seaweed is gaining popularity across the globe, and with it, so is kelp farming.

Alaska’s nascent kelp industry is following suit. The first commercial farm in the state was established in 2016, and more are popping up every year.

But industry experts say Alaska farmers are currently facing a challenging growth spurt.

“There is kind of a chicken and egg situation between farmers and processing,” said Tamsen Peeples, a commercial seaweed mariculture specialist.

Peeples recently visited Unalaska to talk about the state’s growing mariculture industry and offer guidance for people who might be interested in taking up a new seaweed or shellfish farming project.

She said there’s a lot of potential for Alaska to become a major provider of sugar and ribbon kelp. Farmers haven’t had as much luck growing bull kelp, on the other hand, which doesn’t produce nearly as well as it does in the wild. However, some companies like Jueanu-based Barnacle Foods and Ketchikan company Foraged & Found are harvesting wild Alaska bull kelp.

When it comes to sugar and ribbon kelp, Peeples said there’s a lot of interest from farmers as well as buyers, even though the industry in Alaska remains fairly small.

“There's been a lot of folks that are buying seaweed, and these big international buyers that might be interested in say biofuel or bio plastics are waiting for the scale of production in the state to get substantially larger,” Peeples explained.

A United Nations report valued the world’s seaweed industry at more than $6 billion dollars in 2018. Peeples said the potential demand goes beyond farming for human-grade consumption.

“There's so many options for seaweed,” she said. “And there's seaweed derivative products in so many things that we consume or utilize on a day to day basis, whether it's your frothy beer, your toothpaste that has a nice smooth texture, your ice creams, bio plastics, fertilizer, farm feed, there's so many applications that have yet to be utilized.”

So the question becomes, “How can the state’s kelp industry grow to meet that growing market?”

It might seem as simple as growing more seaweed, but there are a lot of questions that still need answering, according to Peeples.

“We have this amazing potential,” she said. “We have this totally underutilized resource that has large, large international demand. But how do we make this industry — Alaska-specific — grow to meet it in a way that's sustainable, responsible and ethical for communities?”

She said high demand doesn’t necessarily result in higher production and the industry needs to make sure it can meet those market demands.

“And then also coordinating and establishing those relationships between the consumer, whether that's the buyer, or direct from farm to table, establishing those connections,” she said. “There's no brokerage service, for example, right now, within the state.”

Some smaller-scale farmers are able to sell their harvests off the dock to local consumers without a problem, she said. But if those farmers want to grow and, say, work with a commercial seafood processor, that’s another place the connection could falter.

“If there were potentially a commercial seafood processor that might want to invest and shift gears into processing commercial seaweed, well, they're used to processing hundreds and thousands of pounds of seafood a day,” Peeples said. “So for a kelp farmer, that means that you have to be able to supply tens of thousands of pounds of seaweed a day for maybe only a short period. It’s a very seasonal crop.”

Julie Decker, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, said the market mismatch between farmers and buyers is a normal hiccup for most new and growing industries.

Alaska has an ideal landscape and an existing fishing infrastructure that could lend itself well to off-season kelp farming, she said.

“A lot of our coastal communities rely on working on the water already,” Decker said. “And so their skills and a lot of their assets, like fishing vessels and things like that, they translate quite well into this area. So it gives people who work on the water already some economic diversification.”

She said that diversification could become especially helpful as some fisheries struggle in the face of climate change.

Seaweed and shellfish farming also provide shelter and habitats for some sea creatures. And seaweed is very good at absorbing excess nutrients, like nitrogen, in the water, according to Decker.

“There may or may not be a lot of applications of that in Alaska, but there are some places with a lot of nitrogen runoff from land-based agriculture, basically from fertilizer that gets into water systems and then goes out into the ocean,” Decker said. “And so there may be places where it's very beneficial for that. There's a variety of ways that seaweed is being seen as potentially beneficial.”

When it comes down to it, there’s a lot of hope for kelp farming, as well as a lot of available funding and a lot of interested investors. Decker said she’s working to facilitate some of those connecting pieces and partners.

“We are working to bring companies to Alaska,” she said. “And we're also working with our current, existing Alaska seafood processing companies to get more information to them about markets and price points, and what's being done with products.”

While there’s still plenty of work to be done to foster the industry, Peeples said she’s confident that Alaska can responsibly and sustainably grow and harvest kelp to meet growing global demands.

Find more information on the state’s seaweed and mariculture industry at AFDF’s website.