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Why aren’t we farming seaweed?

Local researcher looking at making kelp an economic driver for B.C.’s coast
Dr. Stephen Cross has been researching kelp and seaweed for the past five years as the NSERC industrial research chair for sustainable aquaculture, based at North Island College, and his research grant has just been renewed for five more years so he can look into how to make seaweed and kelp into a viable and sustainable economic resource on our coast.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who likes plants that grow in water more than Stephen Cross does.

Dr. Cross is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) industrial research chair for sustainable aquaculture at North Island College (NIC), and he’s on a quest to make kelp a viable economic resource here on our coast.

That’s right. He wants us to be farming seaweed. He’s been looking into the possibilities for the past five years to see if it’s possible, and he’s just been granted an extension for another five to make it a reality.

“We have the opportunity to renew our program twice,” Cross says. This is the first renewal.

“One of the things we looked at over the first five years is how seaweed could be used in terms of mitigating some of the impact of salmon farming,” Cross says. “So now we’re building on that aspect.”

Cross says his research has led him to believe that not only can kelp be used to remove and filter nitrogen and other things like phosphorous from the waters around fish farms, making them more environmentally friendly, but it would be entirely feasible to combine that use with the global demand for kelp as a marketable item and create another economic driver for the coast.

“There has been growing interest from coastal First Nations in economic opportunities, and this is probably one of the least expensive, capital-wise, to get into,” Cross says. “It’s basically farming like you would on land, except that you would just plant it in January and harvest it in June. You don’t have to feed it and you don’t have to buy expensive equipment; it’s just rope and boats and you can produce a fair amount.”

And seaweed, Cross says, is a market opportunity we have been squandering.

“Our opportunity here in B.C. is incredible,” Cross says. “We have probably the richest diversity of seaweeds in the world on our coast – about 633 species – and we don’t do any aquaculture with it. It’s a $10-billion industry globally, and it’s almost all grown in Asia.”

And while most people think of seaweed on the market as being a food source – have a look at what’s wrapping your California roll the next time you go for sushi – but although that’s a huge section of the market, seaweeds are sought after for far more than that.

Alginates extracted from seaweeds and kelp can be used to produce biofuel, textiles and are even used in pharmaceuticals and biomedicine.

“There’s a suite of uses for it,” Cross says, “so there’s a huge economic opportunity and it grows very fast making it even more so, but they also provide an ecosystem service, so you’re killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.”

One of those ecosystem services, preliminary data suggests, is actually mitigating the effects of climate change. Because kelp and seaweed remove carbon dioxide from the water, they actually aid in balancing acidity levels in the ocean around areas where they grow in abundance – like they would be in an aquaculture situation for harvesting.

He’s currently got five partnerships with various coastal First Nations, “with three others who are looking at joining up,” he says, “so we’re getting lots of interest from all over the coast,” along with various shellfish farms and forestry groups, who are looking at kelp as a possible way to mitigate their impact on shorelines when moving logs around.

Naomi Tabata, manager of the Centre for Applied Research, Technology and Innovation at NIC, who has been working closely with Cross, says his NSERC grant renewal is a huge deal, not only for the coastal communities signing up to be a part of it, but for the college, as well.

“First, we get to have Steve, along with all of his years of knowledge and expertise, right here on the North Island,” Tabata says, “which wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for this exceptional grant, and we also get a great way for us to connect with our communities and provide an economic development type of service and keep forming partnerships.”

And there’s an educational aspect, as well. The college currently has an aquaculture technician certificate program, “and we are working on an aquaculture diploma program, so we anticipate those students will work within Steve’s projects and we also anticipate the projects will inform some of the curriculum.

“When you can apply what you’re learning in the classroom to a real-world situation, it can be life changing in terms of educational outcomes,” Tabata says.

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