The Ocean Farmers Trying to Save the World With Seaweed

11 minute read

In a cove in Bamfield, a coastal community in British Columbia, Canada, Louis Druehl steers his boat, The Kelp Express, a mile along the mountainous coastline. For 51 years, this boat has taken Druehl to the fortuitously named Kelp Bay where beneath the water’s surface ropes of seaweed that Druehl has been carefully harvesting for decades dangle in the cold Pacific water.

Referred to by some as the “seaweed guru”—by others, as the “kelp grandfather”—Druehl, 84, was the first commercial seaweed operator in North America when he began growing kelp, a brown seaweed, in 1982. Seaweed is his life: he has studied it, farmed it, cooked it, and written an award winning, bestselling book about it. Over the years, Druehl has watched interest in seaweed come and go. But now, as climate change wreaks havoc on ecosystems across the planet, the world is turning to seaweed as a potential climate change solution. “All of a sudden, people have discovered seaweed,” Druehl tells me. “They’ve discovered us.”

Seaweed can play a huge role in fighting climate change by absorbing carbon emissions, regenerating marine ecosystems, creating biofuel and renewable plastics as well as generating marine protein. Until recently, this centuries old industry has mainly farmed seaweed for food in Asia, with China as the world’s biggest producer of seaweed, accounting for 60% of global volume. But over the past decade, global seaweed production has doubled—with an estimated value of $59.61 billion in 2019—as interest in seaweed as a food source, carbon sink option and renewable product from consumers, farmers, researchers, and business leaders blossoms. The coast of British Columbia, where Druehl has spent his adult life, is a hotspot of seaweed biodiversity and yet the industry here is only just taking off. A seaweed industry could bring jobs to the area, amidst mass layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Could this remote, seaweed-rich corner of the world turn seaweed into climate solutions for the future? Druehl is optimistic: “I think we’re going to pull it off.”

Amy McConnell and Louis Druehl analyze a piece of kelp from Druehl's dock in Bamfield, on Vancouver Island.Melissa Renwick for TIME

While forests have long been considered the best natural defense in the battle against climate change, researchers have found that seaweed is in fact the most effective natural way of absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Unlike tree planting, seaweed does not require fresh water or fertilizers and grows at a much faster rate than trees, expanding by up to two feet a day. But seaweed’s biggest comparative advantage is that it does not compete for demands on land. “When we’re planting trees, we need to make sure it does not take away that land from food production,” says Katie Lebling, a researcher with the World Resources Institute’s carbon removal team, which studies how best to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. “But that is not an issue with seaweed.”

Seaweed can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways: adding a small amount of Asparagopsis taxiformis—a red algal species—to cattle feed has the potential to reduce methane production from beef cattle by up to 99%.

Given concerns about the environmental impact of eating meat, seaweed—which itself is a source of protein—could be an eco-friendly and nutrient packed food source in the coming years. Ronald Osinga of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands found that growing “sea-vegetable” farms totaling 180,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Washington State—could provide enough protein for the entire world. “When you look at how we are going to feed the world population by 2050 in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, there is only one pathway,” says Carlos Duarte, a researcher and professor in biological oceanography and marine ecology. “To scale up seaweed farming.”

‘It’s not just about sustaining local economies — It’s about community.’

Expanding the farming of seaweed can also have beneficial social impacts. Along the coast of British Columbia, where Druehl is from, seaweed farming offers job opportunities for First Nations communities where unemployment rates have forced some people to leave the region to find work. A local company called Cascadia Seaweed, to which Druehl sits on the board, is working in collaboration with First Nations communities to become the largest provider of cultivated seaweed in North America for food. “We want people to have a job so that they can come home,” says Larry Johnson, President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Limited Partnership that provides aquaculture training for 15 First Nations communities living on Vancouver Island. “It’s not just about sustaining local economies—it’s about community.” For thousands of years, First Nations people living along these shores were agriculturalists, harvesting species on land and in the ocean. “Seaweed farming is unique for First Nations communities because it helps us create economies of our own that align with our traditions,” says Johnson. “Our role has always been to connect with the land and repair it.”

Louis Druehl poses for a photo outside his home in Bamfield, on Vancouver Island. The 83-year-old botanist has been studying kelp since 1962 and was the first person to create a kelp farm outside of Asia.Melissa Renwick for TIME

Although research into seaweed as a climate change solution has increased significantly over the past decade, the discoveries are not new to Druehl, who back in the 1970s, was one of the few people aware of seaweed’s potential.

In the 1970s, Druehl was a marine biology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver where he researched the reproductive biology of kelp, a large brown seaweed that can absorb twice the UK’s annual carbon emissions. But back then, he says, “the only interest in seaweed were people who went to health food stores and saw it as a good supplement to their diet.”

This changed in the 1980s when the OPEC crisis struck, oil prices skyrocketed, and governments were suddenly desperately searching for alternative oil sources. Druehl, who was one of the few people that knew about seaweed’s oil potential, quickly went from being an unknown marine biologist on Canada’s west coast to someone that was of massive interest to the U.S. government. Druehl was invited to address the Senate—answering questions about seaweed-based biofuel—which led to him overseeing a promising kelp growing project in Bamfield in partnership with General Electric. But a year and a half into the project, the OPEC crisis ended, oil prices dropped, and the funding for seaweed biofuel dried up. “We were very disappointed,” Druehl says. “Even in the 1980s, we knew we needed alternative energy.”

For the following decades, interest in kelp dissipated but Druehl kept growing seaweed, selling it in health food stores. “I never quit my day job,” Druehl says, noting at the time that only “a very small number of people” wanted seaweed. But slowly, interest in seaweed grew again. In 2014, the first peer-reviewed paper analyzing seaweed as a climate change solution for carbon offsetting was published. The same year, seaweed became trendy among some of the world’s most famous chefs, with english-language seaweed cookbooks appearing in book stores. Suddenly, seaweed—as well as Druehl—once again found themselves in high-demand. Druehl was supplying kelp to hotels across British Columbia including Fairmont, a luxury five-star resort. “My wife and I were flown to Denmark to give lectures to all these chefs,” he says. “It was a riot.”

'Macrocystis pyrifera', commonly known as giant kelp, floats in the Trevor Channel near Bamfield on the Canadian west coast, on Aug. 19, 2020. Melissa Renwick for TIME
Dried kombu kelp is stored at the Canadian Kelp Resources Ltd., in Bamfield, Vancouver Island.Melissa Renwick for TIME

‘The climate economy is wind at our back’

Since 2014, seaweed has increasingly been in the spotlight as a solution for climate change due to its ability to offset carbon, be a sustainable food source, and its regenerative properties for ocean ecosystems. Over the past five years, several academic articles have been published about seaweed as a climate change solution and various seaweed cultivation projects have popped up around the world. From Saudi Arabia to New Hampshire, seaweed farmers and researchers are experimenting with seaweed cattle feed, biofuel, and bioplastics. While the industry for these products is still in its infancy, many are optimistic about its future. “The climate economy is wind at our back,” says Bren Smith, executive director of Green Wave, an ocean farming company. “The ocean is coming, the tide is rising, we can either run and hide and build sea walls, or we can turn around and embrace the sea as a climate change solution.”

Yet there remain questions about whether seaweed can be scaled globally as a carbon offsetting strategy to combat climate change. The gains from seaweed sequestering CO2 can be reversed if it is not used correctly. If seaweed is just grown for the purpose of absorbing carbon without being harvested, it will rot and release the CO2 it has captured back into the atmosphere.

Researchers say there are two possibilities—sinking the seaweed into the deep sea or using it for products ranging from food to biofuel. But these options are not straightforward. Technology to sink seaweed is unlikely to be cost effective and the process of transporting, drying and converting seaweed into food, biofuel and bioplastics itself emits CO2. “Seaweed has a range of applications beyond carbon storage that can be a part of the solution,” says Halley Froehlich, an assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who researches the scalability of seaweed farming. “But it’s certainly not a silver bullet.” Growing seaweed on a global scale also has ecological risks; too much seaweed could impact the amount of light that goes down to other species affecting photosynthesis processes and could have dangerous effects on ecosystems by removing too many nutrients from wild ecosystems.

Bull kelp floats within the Trevor Channel near Bamfield, off the west coast of Vancouver Island.Melissa Renwick for TIME
Tory Pritchard hangs wild kombu kelp to dry at the Canadian Kelp Resources Ltd., in Bamfield on Aug. 19, 2020. It takes in between 36 to 40 hours to dry, depending on how much humidity is in the air.Melissa Renwick for TIME

But for Druehl, who has watched interest in seaweed come and go—his prospective biofuel fortunes wax and wane—whether seaweed farming can be scaled is not a technological question. It is a question of whether governments, companies and consumers have the will to help this industry flourish. “We’re moving along very nicely technologically. We know that seaweed can improve many aspects of our life,” Druehl says. “But I don’t think things are working in a parallel fashion in the political and social world.”

For the industry to scale, Druehl says, governing bodies—both national and international—as well as private companies have to make major investments to help the industry get its feet off the ground. But currently, many governments in the Western world have yet to sufficiently invest in the industry or create the necessary conditions for it to scale. In some countries like the United States and Australia, it is easier to receive a government concession for oil and gas than it is for cultivating seaweed for biofuel. In many Western countries, permits for growing seaweed are hard to come by. And internationally, all the global mechanisms that could regulate seaweed farming were developed before the industry was created, leaving gaps in regulation and permitting. “Seaweed is not an industry in most Western nations,” says Duarte. “It’s a thought.”

The small town of Bamfield sits on the western edge of the Canadian coast on Vancouver Island.Melissa Renwick for TIME

But this thought—somewhere between a pipedream and an inevitability—has captivated Druehl for half a century. “It’s always been kelp,” he tells me, noting that he has always been fascinated by kelp’s many uses. Even during the pandemic, Druehl thinks seaweed has a role to play. The industry, he says, could provide meaningful, green jobs to people who have recently become unemployed. Currently, Druehl is trying to convince his own daughter—whose job has been affected by the pandemic—to join him in Kelp Bay. “I keep telling her, we’ve got nice kelp business out here!” But even if Druehl’s daughter is not interested in joining the family business, there is a long line of prospective seaweed farmers waiting to learn from the kelp grandfather.

At the end of our call, Druehl tells me that currently, he is looking out his window and watching people unload seaweed from his boat. “There is no question that seaweed farming can be done at a large scale and can improve our lives.” he says. “We just need the political will.”

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