Washington Struggles to Turn Kelp into Cash Crop

Bull kelp Puget Sound

Bull kelp in Puget Sound. Photo: Sara Hamilton/OSU

Sandy Doughton writes in the Seattle Times that the efforts to restore Puget Sound’s bull kelp are motivated by the algae’s profound importance to marine ecosystems. But there’s also a Gold Rush mentality around kelp and other seaweeds these days.

A guide to the seaweed industry

Globally, seaweed farming is already a $6 billion industry, and one analysis says it could exceed $80 billion by 2026. But the history of seaweed farming in Washington shows it’s not easy to turn algae into money. Huge markets have been forecasted for Washington that never materialized — such as for potash, or potassium salts, and candied citron (branded “seatron”) derived from kelp.

Biologist Tom Mumford was hired by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources in the mid-1970s to foster seaweed aquaculture. He helped the Lummi Nation cultivate seaweed as a source of carrageenan, a food-thickening agent. But they couldn’t compete with growers in the tropics.

One company proposed two large farms near Anacortes to produce nori for sushi but backed off after public outcry.

Proponents haven’t given up, though. Washington Sea Grant and others received funding in 2019 to develop a training program for potential seaweed growers.

Blue Dot Sea Farms is a partner in a two-year project, in collaboration with Washington Sea Grant, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They provide information and training on seaweed farming to the public, with a particular focus on veterans in a program entitled “Seaweed Lines of Change: Laying the Groundwork to Advance the Practice of Sustainable Seaweed Farming in the Pacific Northwest.”

The company is also participating in the National Sea Grant Seaweed Hub. This project involves a consortium of seaweed growers, processors and food scientists who are meeting over the next 2-3 years to develop a national strategy for the development of profitable marine agronomy based on cultivating seaweeds for food and other high value products.

Finding markets has been tough, says Blue Dot co-owner Joth Davis, a longtime oyster grower. But they recently developed their first product: a savory kelp puff they call “seachirrones.”

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