by David Schwartz for AlgaePlanet.com | All photos: ©2022 Kevin Morris
The first Seagriculture conference held in the United States, on September 6-7 in Portland, Maine, provided an optimistic view of a future where seaweed and underwater farming emerge as major contributors to food security, carbon management, and sustainable materials.
As the current heavyweight in seaweed production, Maine was an appropriate site for the audience of nearly 300 to see close-up where the industry is today, where it’s headed, and who the significant players are. A recent report, co-produced by Seagriculture and FocusMaine, notes that Maine’s seaweed industry has grown 20-fold in the past five years, from 45,000 pounds in 2017 to over 1 million pounds in 2022.
The networking opportunities at Seagriculture were a feeding frenzy of information and connections. Obvious to all was that we are in the very early stage of something that could become a huge growth industry in the not-too-distant future.
To get a sense of the growth potential that was floated in at least one presentation, the US is currently not even in the top 20 countries producing seaweed agriculture. Balance that against the World Wildlife Foundation’s prediction that by 2051 seaweed will surpass potatoes as the 4th largest food commodity in the US. It was a definite a wake-up call to the audience.
At the same time, the ashes from the algae biofuel expectations of a few years back were brought in as a cautionary tale. Keeping a conservative reality filter on the exuberant visions of a planet saved by seaweed was recommended.
Here were a few of the many memorable presentations:
ARPA-E’s Program Director, Dr. Simon Freeman, and Technology to Market Advisor, Daniel Rogers, discussed new ocean farm designs and cultivation practices that take us closer to scaled offshore biomass growth.
ARPA-E, or Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy is a United States government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. Over the last 3 years, the ARPA-E MARINER program has invested more than $62M toward developing the foundations for an offshore macroalgal cultivation industry in the United States.
Two breakthrough software tools for seaweed farming were presented that showed their potential to take the risk profile down significantly. The MacroAlgae Cultivation MODeling System (MACMODS), a numerical tool to support the future of seaweed farming, was presented by Kristen A. Davis, Associate Professor at the University of California.
MACMODS allows one to investigate farm-scale design and siting, environmental feedbacks, as well as global-scale seaweed production potential. Dr. Davis demonstrated the utility of this interactive tool to address the potential productivity, costs, and potential climate benefits for the cultivation of giant kelp along the California coast.
Another impressive analytical tool for suitability modelling of sea farming in U.S. federal waters was presented by James Morris, Jr., a marine ecologist at NOAA’s National Ocean Service. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an American scientific and regulatory agency within the Department of Commerce that forecasts weather, monitors oceanic and atmospheric conditions, charts the seas, conducts deep sea exploration, and manages fishing and protection of marine mammals and endangered species in the U.S. exclusive economic zone.
The NOAA NCCOS system is designed to deliver ecosystem science solutions to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies. To inform planning and siting of ocean aquaculture, NOAA has developed this spatial planning infrastructure that has vastly improved access and understanding of ocean regions. This has enabled industry and coastal managers to identify conflicts and opportunities early in the planning and permitting process.
Julia Marsh, Co-Founder and CEO of Sway — a venture-backed materials company producing packaging made from seaweed — generated a thunderous response for her presentation on advanced, climate-friendly applications for seaweed.
Sway is currently developing and scaling high-performance, home compostable, seaweed-based packaging. The company’s packaging integrates seamlessly into existing plastic infrastructure, while simultaneously replenishing ocean health, sequestering carbon, and catalyzing a more inclusive environmental movement through regenerative design. In 2022, Sway was named as a finalist in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize.
Representing the smaller seaweed farmers and artisan growers, Severine Fleming discussed conservation, culture, and local agency in a growing seaweed sector. As an operator of Maine’s Smithereen Farm, the activist-organizer is a co-founder of the Seaweed Commons network. She presented a position paper for the network that addressed key issues including:
- How will we ensure the co-authorship of smaller scale operators, entrepreneurs, youth, indigenous and traditional wild harvesters in participating actively in shaping the rules, and running businesses in this space?
- How can we take action now, to arrive at a locally owned, conservation-minded, suitably scaled seaweed sector?
- How do we achieve economic and ecological resilience in these critical coastal habitats, avoiding the boom-and-bust cycles of other fisheries and of fin-fish aquaculture?
Investment was not far from everyone’s minds at such an event, and a diverse panel of visionary investors addressed the future of seaweed regarding the opportunities, risks, and need for profitability. Individual angel investor Bobbie Lamont, Senior Investment Manager at Oceans 2050 Megan Reilly Cayten, and Gediminas (Jedi) Tamosaitis, CEO of Metal Production & Rocket cluster, in Lithuania, carried on a lively discussion ranging from “it’s too early” to “meet me right after this session!”
One of the big success stories in the nascent industry is the emergence of seaweed as food. To that end Atlantic Sea Farm’s CEO and President, Briana Warner discussed working with partner farmers in Maine to help create a more resilient and thriving coast. The ASF team and partner farmers now account for the majority of line-grown kelp in the US and are proving that a model that “puts farmers, planet, and people first can drive an entirely new way of producing food.”
Her presentation was followed by a live cooking demonstration by Atlantic Sea Farms, bringing a tasty umami finish to the two-day event. By making easy-to-cook-with-kelp available, as well as creating innovative new products that help kelp shine in new ways, the company dramatically demonstrated their intentions of creating a sea change in how we all enjoy the “Virtuous Vegetable” at home.
In other news from the conference, the top Seagriculture Gold Innovation Award went to Scott Lindell, Research Specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, for his four years of leading a selective breeding program for sugar kelp in New England. The Silver Award was presented to David Bailey, also from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, for his automated underwater seaweed seed-string deployment device. The Bronze winner was Kendall Barbery from GreenWave with the GreenWave’s Regenerative Ocean Farming Hub — a free, online resource designed to provide seed-to-sale support for both emerging and active ocean farmers and hatchery technicians.
The organizers of Seagriculture, DLG Benelux, are no doubt aware that they have found an opportune moment to facilitate and advance the next generation of ocean farming. With presentations such as those in Maine, they are developing an event that will likely grow rapidly in size and importance.
Next year’s event will remain in Portland, and for those who can’t wait that long, the European version of Seagriculture will next be held June 21-22, 2023, in Trondheim, Norway.
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