Should Seaweed Farming Be Better Regulated?
seaweed kelp

Farmer and seaweed harvester Severine von Tscharner Fleming. Photo by James Jackman

In recent years, writes Lisa Held in civileats .com, seaweed has been promoted around the globe as an overlooked, multifaceted climate solution: a sustainable food and biofuel source, a feed that reduces methane emissions from cattle, and a tool with the potential to absorb massive quantities of carbon from the atmosphere (although much more research is needed to determine how farms might actually contribute to sequestration). As a result, companies looking to capitalize on those promises are turning up in far-flung coastal communities with big plans.

Many see the movement toward larger operations as exciting evidence of progress. “We have all these global problems and no solutions on land. Seaweed is the greatest untapped resource that we have,” said Vincent Doumeizel, the food program director at the innovation-focused charity Lloyd’s Register Foundation. Mr. Doumeizel co-authored The Seaweed Manifesto in 2020 to draw attention to how scaling up the industry outside of Asia, where 99 percent of the world’s seaweed is already grown, can accelerate progress on multiple United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

At the same time, seaweed farmers, harvesters, and advocates in British Columbia, Maine, and elsewhere are concerned. They say that as companies with no experience in their coastal ecosystems or the complexities of farming kelp go big and move fast, the industry risks replicating the early mistakes of finfish aquaculture, which resulted in a number of environmental disasters. To prevent repeating historic mistakes, they are fighting to establish local rules regarding issues such as farm size and location, native seaweed genetics, and permit ownership.

Networking farmers and harvesters

In 2021, advocates in Maine created the Seaweed Commons to create networks of small-scale ecological harvesters and farmers that could share information and resources; they also conducted a panel at a Slow Fish conference called “Gardens or Monocultures? Seaweed Cultivation at the Crossroads.” In March, Lloyd’s Register Foundation also launched the Safe Seaweed Coalition to fill in gaps in food, environmental, and operational regulations around the world.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that seaweed is coming into people’s consciousness and awareness…as an absolutely critical component of global climate and global health and the health of the oceans,” said marine biologist and seaweed farmer Amanda Swinimer. “The part that concerns me is that a lot of people are seeing dollar signs. It’s being said that kelp farming is going to save the planet from climate change. Well, wild kelp is already saving us from worse climate change, and if we mess with that, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

Frank Voelker’s skepticism about the growing industry is about the potential for a different kind of failure — the failure of big seaweed companies to deliver real economic benefits to the First Nations on whose territories they are operating. Mr. Voelker has been the economic development officer for the Kwiakah First Nation, based in Phillips Arm, British Columbia, for 16 years.

Mr. Voelker said that he’s watched the forestry and salmon industries destroy First Nations’ territories while also keeping a stranglehold on regulatory processes. “A standard for [kelp farming] needs to be developed…where the government is at the table, the Indigenous governments are at the table, and environmental NGOs are at the table, but not the industry,” he said. “The only way to get it right is to not have the industry in the room. If they get a seat at the table, the problems we have with fish farming, we’ll have the same with seaweed in 10 or 15 years.”

Advocates across the board said that at the end of the day they just want everyone to have to play by rules that protect the oceans and Indigenous communities. And they don’t think those rules exist yet.

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