Woods Hole Developing New Kelp Strains

  Women of Algae
Woods Hole sugar kelp

A strand of sugar kelp being farmed off the coast of New Castle, NH. Kelp and other seaweeds provide essential micronutrients and bioactive compounds for human health. Their stem-like stipes (attached to the long leafy blades) are rich in alginate, an important compound extracted from seaweeds and used in pharmaceuticals and biomedicine. Photo by David Bailey. ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is embarking on a study of how new seaweed strains could further enhance the burgeoning seaweed industry and offer solutions to some of the world’s pressing challenges. This research is funded in part by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Bezos Earth Fund, and the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Aquaculture already supplies more than half of the world’s seafood consumed by humans, with seaweed totaling 27% of annual global aquaculture tonnage. WHOI’s Scott Lindell, a research specialist in aquaculture technology, leads the research project to develop improved seaweed strains for commercial uses. The project will test the performance of superior sugar kelp strains on farms and measure the yield and quality of the new strains.

With funding over the next 2.5 years from WWF, the team plans to conduct two breeding and harvesting seasons from 2021–2023, on commercial partners’ farms in the Northeast US. By identifying different strains, they will match specific traits to meet targeted needs, such as taste and texture. Partners will take part in breeding and nursery practices with the goal of amplifying and testing new kelp varieties.

Improving the Strains

The overarching goal is to examine genetic and environmental influences while also comparing the strains by “traits” (color, taste, shelf life) to meet the industry and consumer needs. Hatchery operators will also learn how to grow the product year-round. Long-term, the hope is to build strong industry partnerships while also creating faster, better growing strains.

Seaweed farming does not rely on resources associated with traditional agriculture – fertile land, energy intensive fertilizers, and freshwater availability. According to Dr. Lindell, “It’s easy to grow, beneficial for ocean ecosystems, and an efficient, low-carbon way to produce nutritious food for a growing population, both human and animals. Additionally, research suggests our future homes and vehicles could one day be powered by fuel made from farmed seaweed.

“Much of this new-found interest is fueled by seaweeds’ climate-friendly qualities and the restorative properties associated with such farms; absorbing excess carbon and nitrogen, buffering coastal pH, providing habitat and sheltering coastlines,” he added.

“WWF’s commitment to this research provides critical support,” Dr. Lindell said. “With this timely investment, we plan to collaborate with the kelp farming industry at a critical stage of its development to help them adopt modern plant breeding methodologies and hatchery techniques.”

“Seaweed farming produces highly nutritious foods with very few inputs relative to terrestrial farming, and it improves the quality of water in which the farms operate,” says WWF’s Paul Dobbins, Senior Director of Impact Investing and Ecosystems Services and Seaweed Lead. “The results of WHOI’s research will help farms advance their productivity, leading to greater environmental and societal gains. We are encouraged by the direction of this research and look forward to seeing progress over the next two growing seasons.”

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