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Algae farm field in Indonesia
Credit: Adobe Stock Photos - dinozzaver

Ocean Farming

Call to action:

Promote ocean farming by integrating seaweed and bivalves to increase wild fish stocks, absorb the pollution that leads to the formation of marine dead zones, and even reduce local ocean acidification. Growing more seaweed, in particular, will supply us with sustainable food for ourselves and our livestock and replace plastics, and fuels.

Unlike agriculture on land, kelp and bivalve mariculture, sometimes called “marine permaculture,” does not require clearing land or using harmful inputs like pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Moreover, the benefits do not stop at having more highly nutritious sea vegetables and delicious protein. Farming the red algae Asparagopsis taxiformis can help us reduce methane emissions from cattle (see Asparagopsis Nexus). Kelp derivatives can help restore soil health and stimulate crop growth. Both seaweed and bivalves can help reduce runoff pollution that threatens coastal waterways, and even reduce the acidity of seawater to help nearby species suffering from ocean acidification. Growing kelps at a commercial scale is also an important stepping-stone for an even more ambitious kelp-based climate solution (see  Seaforestation Nexus).

Action Items

Individuals

Learn what makes ocean farming easier than land-based agriculture. Ocean farming of seaweed and bivalves is fundamentally different from growing crops on land in the impact it has on the environment and people.

  • Only 11.4% of the Earth’s surface is suitable for crops or grazing, and only 3.4% is arable, compared to 70% of the Earth covered in oceans. Plus, there’s stiff competition for land between the needs for agriculture, buildings and roads, renewable energy production, and nature. Ocean farms avoid that competition for space.
  • Ocean farming of kelp also creates useful habitat for a variety of species, from sea otters to squid. In the Pacific Northwest, the recovery of kelp forests led to a dramatic increase in salmon, cod, and rockfish populations.
  • On land, there are limits on available freshwater, and crops often need fertilizers and pesticides to survive, even though the cause major issues with pollution, have health consequences for people, and are linked to huge carbon footprints. None of these limitations exist in the coastal settings where ocean farming is set to take off.
  • Unlike farms on land which can cause negative impacts to surrounding natural landscapes, growing seaweed and bivalves can benefit nearby marine ecosystems, from reversing ocean acidification in the surrounding water to removing excess nutrients that can bleach coral reefs.
  • The Seaweed as a Nature-Based Climate Solution vision statement produced by the Ocean Stewardship Coalition provides a useful overview of the role ocean farming can play going forward in addressing climate change.

Find seaweed products from marine permaculture farms. Despite a long history of cultivation by various groups including Alaska natives, Hawaiians, and even early twentieth-century Californians, the resurgence of interest in seaweed cultivation in much of the West is in its initial shaky early stages. One of the best things you can do to support the expansion of marine permaculture is to become an early adopter of regionally-grown seaweed products. Here is a sample of companies and guides to seaweed products:

Learn more about Asparagopsis and seaforestation. Asparagopsis taxiformis is a type of seaweed that can reduce the methane released by cattle by 60 to 99 percent when it replaces even a few percent of their feed. Seaforestation is a term for growing new kelp forests in places that lack some or all of the conditions needed for kelp forests to grow naturally and then ensuring that much of the kelp (and the atmospheric carbon it contains) ends up thousands of feet deep on the seafloor, where the carbon will remain for more than a thousand years. See Asparagopsis Nexus and Seaforestation Nexus to learn more.

Become a seaweed farmer. There has been an explosion of interest among individuals recently in farming seaweed, especially alongside bivalves like mussels and oysters. Resources for becoming a marine permaculturist include: 

  • This online guide from GreenWave offers a zero-to-hero outline for becoming a regenerative marine farmer. With videos, infographics, and links it walks you through what it takes in terms of initial investment, what goals to strive for, and what markets a farmer can connect to. It even discusses how some nonfood-grade seaweed can be used as feedstock for bioplastics.
  • The Alaska Mariculture Initiative offers a number of resources for becoming a kelp farmer in the state of Alaska.
  • The Pacific Seaweed Industry Association, based in Vancouver, offers training and consultations as part of their mission to promote regional seaweed farming.

Donate to or volunteer with groups on the cutting edge of ocean farming. A number of organizations working at the forefront of marine permaculture are limited in their work by a lack of funding. Organizations that could use additional financial support include:

  • GreenWave, a nonprofit dedicated to training and supporting new seaweed farmers in the U.S.
  • The Climate Foundation, an Australia-based NGO with global ambitions on the cutting edge of marine permaculture efforts, is looking for volunteers and donors.
  • Native Conservancy’s Native Regenerative Fund helps Indigenous villagers in Alaska learn restorative seaweed farming techniques.
  • The Running Tide Foundation (alongside their for-profit company) is working to advance marine permaculture and kelp-mediated carbon drawdown in the U.S.

Invest in ocean farming. There are a number of companies, from tiny start-ups to major players, that are seeking investments to improve the way we use ocean resources. Investable Oceans is a hub for connecting investors (especially accredited investors) to environmentally friendly and socially responsible business opportunities across the Blue Economy, including a curated list of opportunities in the fisheries and aquaculture space.

Speak up. Write an op-ed to a newspaper or social media site promoting marine permaculture or public investments in seaweed farming (including the streamlining of permitting processes). Here are some examples of specific calls to action:

  • Getting a kelp farm permitted can take up to two years of navigating the leasing and permitting agencies in Alaska, and much longer in California. Consider writing your state lawmakers to ask for more streamlined processes.
  • Promote foods, products, or companies derived from or engaged in regenerative ocean farming through public reviews.

Follow the latest from marine permaculture advocates on social media. Accounts include:

Groups

Mariculturists

Grow polycultures. Often mariculturists focus on just one crop, but evidence shows that there is high value in growing crops like seaweed, oysters, mussels, and other bivalves together. These polycultures require zero inputs and can even reduce pollution from sources like fin-fish farms or agricultural runoff. Primers on regenerative mariculture can be found online (Sea Grant, GreenWave, NOAA).

Join a collaborative or regional association of seaweed growers. Regional networks are emerging to support marine permaculturists, such as the Alaska Mariculture Alliance, the Pacific Seaweed Industry Association, and GreenWave.

Obtain ASC-MSC sustainability certification. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council partnered to create a best-practices standard for sustainably produced seaweed products. Each company that obtains this certification will put pressure on the industry to make sure best practices are followed for growing and harvesting seaweed in the most environmentally friendly ways possible.

Companies

Become a seaweed buyer. GreenWave’s Buyer Network allows a variety of businesses or other entities to source seaweed from small-scale producers.

Use marine permaculture inputs for animal agriculture, bio-stimulants, plastics, cosmetics, and biofuels. Small seaweed food companies have proliferated in the West, trying to play catchup with other parts of the world with long histories of large-scale consumption of seaweed products. Bigger food corporations in the West need to get on board. But beyond food, kelp can supply more sustainable versions of a number of other products. All straws could be made out of kelp-derived bioplastics, a much more sustainable option than either petroleum-based plastics or paper. Perhaps the biggest untapped opportunity is for kelp biofuels to replace both gasoline and diesel as well as first-generation biofuels like sugarcane or corn-derived ethanol, which have large carbon footprints and compete with food crops for limited space on terrestrial farms.

Assist in the development of blue carbon markets that support regenerative seaweed farming practices. Carbon offsets and credits have been around for many years, but carbon credits from seaweed farming have not been incorporated into major carbon markets. Companies can play a key role in shaping blue carbon credits through participation in voluntary carbon markets and through net-zero pledges.

Support marine permaculture through private capital. Financial partnerships between investors, nonprofits, private companies, and the public sector can help meet climate challenges faced by vulnerable communities.

Invest in R&D for seaweed bioplastics and biofuels. The market for seaweed products will likely expand dramatically as more efficient processes are developed to turn seaweed into biodegradable plastic alternatives and truly sustainable biofuels. Getting there will require additional investments from the private sector into research and development. For example, the company Sea6 Energy recently raised $9 million for the development of a “sea combine” that would decrease the labor needed for harvesting seaweed grown commercially in Indonesia.

Governance

Pass legislation that legalizes and/or supports seaweed farming. In many states, farming seaweed was recently or is currently prohibited. But even where allowed, nascent seaweed farming efforts can use a helping hand to grow into mature industries. Some have proposed tax credits, but there are a variety of steps that could be taken. Here are some specific examples of helpful steps taken by governments that could be replicated:

  • The Alaska Mariculture Task Force, created by administrative order of the state’s governor. It has been instrumental in promoting seaweed farming in the state, and has identified key issues that need to be addressed to put Alaska on track to make seaweed mariculture a $100 million a year industry by 2040.
  • The New York Legislature recently passed the “Kelp Bill,” allowing the commercial farming of sugar kelp in two Long Island bays that were recently opened to shellfish farming. Governor Andrew Cuomo, however, resigned before signing the bill into law.

Invest in recording Indigenous knowledge about seaweed cultivation and uses. Many coastal Indigenous communities have long histories of harvesting, cultivating, and using different types of macroalgae in the ocean. Often this knowledge is held by elders within communities. Providing resources to carefully document and spread this form of traditional knowledge is vital for making sure it is not lost.

Enter into partnerships with universities, NGOs, and private businesses, to facilitate marine permaculture work. Multistakeholder alliances are often enhanced with governmental partnerships, particularly given that the seascapes that could house marine permaculture arrays or seaweed farms are public resources managed by government entities. Compared to terrestrial crops, the cultivation of which is supported by agricultural extension and considerable research, much less is known about the basics of how, when, and where to grow seaweed. The Seaweed Manifesto points out that there is a need for further research on “Seaweed biology, genetics, and metabolomics . . . to support informed choices about species selection, breeding, disease management, sustainability and diversity.”

Develop and harmonize standards for seaweed production and products and national and international levels. For seaweed production to reach its full potential, a clear and simple set of policies, standards, and regulations need to be established to ensure product safety, ease local permitting restrictions, and facilitate cross-border trade. Particularly useful would be the inclusion of seaweed farm suitability assessments as part of routine marine mapping exercises, as well as clear standards for seaweed-derived packaging and plastics alternatives.

Learn

Watch

Is Seaweed One of the Keys?, Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre (98 min)

2040 (92 min)

GreenWave: Regenerative Ocean Farming, NOAA and the World Economic Forum (5 min)

Seaweed: Sustainable Crop of the Future,” Financial Times (5 min)

Read

“A New Leaf: Seaweed Could Be A Miracle Food—If We Can Figure Out How To Make It Taste Good” (The New Yorker)

“The Climate-Friendly Vegetable You Ought to Eat” (The New York Times)

“The Ocean Farmers Trying to Save the World with Seaweed” (Time)

“How Farming Giant Seaweed Can Feed Fish and Fix the Climate” (The Conversation)

“Reclaiming Native Knowledges Through Kelp Farming in Cordova, Alaska” (Vogue)

“Kelp Wanted: Why New England Is Going Wild for Wet Weeds” (The Economist)

“Facing Warming Waters, Fishermen Are Taking Up Ocean Farming” (Smithsonian Magazine)

“On the Horizon: Commercial Kelp Farming in NY” (Musings)

“Maine's Seaweed Farmers Are Already Having a Record-Setting Year” (Food and Wine)

“Kelp at the Crossroads: Should Seaweed Farming Be Better Regulated?” (Civil Eats)

“Like Underwater Rainforests, Vertical Farms Grow Crops Sustainably and Rebuild Ecosystems” (Mashable)

Sunlight and Seaweed by Tim Flannery

Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith

The Seaweed Manifesto by Erik Giercksky and Vincent Doumeizel

Seaweed Sustainability: Food and Non-Food Applications, edited by Brijesh Tiwari and Declan Troy

Listen

The Seaweed Solution with Ricardo Radulovich (Seasteading Institute)

Maine’s Seaweed Farming Boom (Heritage Radio Network)

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