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Rising tide: Pacific Northwest could soon double or triple its small number of seaweed farms

Lummi Island Sea Farms proposes to grow sugar kelp in the cool part of the year on the same marine footprint used in summer by anchored reefnet fishing gears in Legoe Bay.
Tom Banse
NW News Network
Lummi Island Sea Farms proposes to grow sugar kelp during the cool part of the year on part of the marine footprint used in summer by anchored reefnet fishing gears in Legoe Bay.

There's a rising tide of interest in opening seaweed farms in the Pacific Northwest. If even half of the current applicants succeed, it would more than double the small number of commercial seaweed growing operations in Oregon and Washington state.

Commercial fisherman Riley Starks of Lummi Island is one of the aspiring seaweed farmers. He wants to branch out into growing nutritious sugar kelp for food, feed or fertilizer.

"There's many markets. One is culinary for restaurants,” Starks said. “And then for agriculture, like cattle feed. They know that putting 3% seaweed in cattle feed will reduce methane by 80%.”

“It benefits the whole area,” Starks said, brimming with enthusiasm. He predicted that the cultivated kelp would provide shelter to small fish and counteract ocean acidification while it grew on lines anchored in the shallows of his home island at Legoe Bay.

Starks was hoping to open the second commercial seaweed farm in Washington waters, but after two and half years of trying he still hasn’t navigated all the way through the federal, state and county permitting, tribal consultation and aquatic leasing process.

"The permit process has been very difficult because even though they want to streamline it, they haven’t streamlined it,” Starks said.

According to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, there are now five prospective seaweed farmers with pending aquatic lease applications before the agency and another four more in the wings, for a total of nine in various stages of permitting. All of those proposals are located in the sheltered waters of Puget Sound.

A spokesman for DNR’s aquatics division said the agency is being deliberate in its evaluation and seeking advice from others including the state of Alaska, which has more experience regulating this line of business.

“Because this is a new industry, we’re doing our due diligence to assess the habitat, scientific and policy needs to safely and responsibly lease state-owned aquatic lands for seaweed aquaculture,” said DNR’s Joe Smillie in an email.

“We’re kind of late to the party,” observed Washington Sea Grant outreach specialist Meg Chadsey, who has been working for more than five years to facilitate the birth of a commercial seaweed industry in this region after seeing it start in New England and then take off in Alaska.

“I like the idea of starting slow and small and giving ourselves a chance to see if our hopes for what kelp and seaweed could do for us prove out and see if some of the things people are concerned about are truly problems or not,” Chadsey said. “If they are, pause.”

Chadsey said concerns she had heard include impacts on waterfront property owners, visual pollution and how marine creatures could potentially react to many new lines in the water.

Her fear is if those concerns stall the prospective new sea farms, “We’re denying ourselves a really effective tool to support the health of Puget Sound.”

Oregon is home to a commercial seaweed aquaculture company which bypassed a bunch of the open water permitting hurdles by choosing to grow a reddish-brown seaweed called dulse in tanks on land. Oregon Seaweed pumps saltwater from the nearby ocean to circulate through its large tanks at the ports of Bandon and Garibaldi.

The Oregon company was an outgrowth of Oregon State University research into seaweed varieties suitable for farming in the Northwest. When OSU announced its researchers had patented a “seaweed that tastes like bacon” in 2015, it created a minor sensation with headlines such as “The new, sustainable superfood,” "the new kale," "the magical bacon unicorn of vegetables," or combined all in one: "Move Over, Kale: Dulse is the Superfood of the Future."

OSU Professor Chris Langdon said a Canadian company on Vancouver Island, Cascadia Seaweed, has since joined Oregon Seaweed in propagating the dulse strain that was identified by his lab.

Washington state’s first commercial seaweed farm is also an outgrowth of scientific research. Blue Dot Sea Farms inherited an experimental permit originally issued to the 5-acre shellfish operation when its owners agreed to host experiments into the possible benefits of growing kelp there for climate change mitigation. The sea farm continues to grow kelp in combination with oysters on suspended lines in Hood Canal.

Blue Dot is now selling a line of puffed kelp snacks made from the sugar kelp it grows. The product is cleverly named Seacharrones, a play on the fried pork skin snack, chicharrones.

“What we’re doing is we’re taking our dried and powdered, rinsed kelp, we’re mixing it with some rice and sorghum and then we’re popping it into this curly snack food that has crisp, that has crunch,” Travis Bettinson, Blue Dot Kitchen research and development director, said in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It pairs really well with everyday items that people across the United States use, i.e., it pairs well with beer.”

Some of the other aspiring Pacific Northwest seaweed farmers who have publicly described their plans are also focused on sugar kelp. A startup named Vashon Kelp Forest has identified a preferred site in Colvos Passage next to Vashon Island. A second Vashon Islander, Mike Spranger, also has designs on growing kelp, but in combination with shellfish, on a 10-acre lease nearby in Colvos Passage.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.