AI Makes Smarter Use of Seaweed and Kelp

 Seagriculture EU 2024
Seaweed and Kelp

The researchers at Polar Algae in Hammerfest, Norway, say that their years of experience are now being boosted by artificial intelligence. Photo: Caroline Haukeland, Polar Algae

by Steinar Brandslet

Both humans and domestic animals all over the world eat seaweed and kelp. Several species are used in everything from cosmetics and food additives to fertilizers and medicines. However, seaweed and kelp are also part of vulnerable ecosystems that are at risk of over-exploitation. Researchers and industry want to prevent this from happening using artificial intelligence.

“If we harvest seaweed without having a management plan in place, we put these vulnerable ecosystems and the biodiversity they are part of at risk,” says Nadav Bar, a professor at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

Thorough planning is needed

“Large parts of the world’s fish stocks are either completely depleted or overexploited, and the percentage of fish species that are found in sustainable quantities in the ocean is declining dramatically. For example, cod has almost completely disappeared from Canadian waters,” Bar says.

According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), one million of the world’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. As much as 66 per cent of the oceans on our planet are affected by human activity.

European plans using artificial intelligence

That’s why it’s so important to plan properly how we should use seaweed and kelp. Nadav Bar is coordinating a major new EU Horizon Europe project called iCulture, a collaboration involving 17 partners from 10 countries. The goal is to be able to use seaweed and kelp as a sustainably important resource while also safeguarding biodiversity.

iCulture is being led by NTNU in Trondheim, Norway. “We are developing artificial intelligence that investigates the vulnerability of known species of seaweed and kelp. We are also identifying new species that contain chemical substances with great potential for society. If we are successful, they can be harvested commercially,” says Bar.

Both alginate and fertilizer products for the agricultural industry are currently produced from macroalgae, but these products only use certain parts of these marine plants. Currently, over 70 per cent of the plant mass simply goes to waste.

“For this reason, we are also developing an artificial intelligence-based algorithm that directs specially modified bacteria to consume the rest of the raw algae material. As a result, the remaining raw material is converted into valuable products, and there is no residue or waste,” says Bar.

These modified bacteria produce useful, expensive chemical substances such as antimicrobial molecules and antioxidants. “The new AI-led technology is based on algorithms currently used in popular computer games such as StarCraft and Civilization,” he says.

The project involves people from many fields, including marine biologists, geneticists, artificial intelligence and modelling experts, environmental engineers, process engineers and cyberneticists, social scientists as well as people from the industry itself.

Finding out when and where to harvest

Researchers and the industry are studying the effects of harvesting on seaweed and kelp stocks. They are also looking at how climate change affects the stocks and how ecosystems recover after harvesting takes place. The data can indicate where and when sustainable harvesting should take place.

Responsible harvesting ensures that the resource is not depleted, benefiting both the industry and the ecosystems. “Using machine learning algorithms, iCulture analyses over 80 TB of data. This provides us with key information, enabling us to combine seaweed and kelp harvesting with protection of the ecosystem. It helps us conduct a less invasive harvest. We demonstrate that it is possible to combine seaweed and kelp harvesting with environmental considerations,” says Bar.

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Seagriculture USA 2024
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