Seaweed: A Growing Economy in British Columbia.

Rachel takes a field trip on Vancouver Island to examine the boom of the marine algae industry in BC. Field Trip Courtesy of Cascadia Seaweed.

Holding red seaweed in hand. Seaweed is a growing economy in BC.

When Cascadia Seaweed’s Erin Bremmer-Mitchell reached out to me to join a seaweed tour, I had two things on my mind. Why is seaweed growing in popularity? And how does seaweed farming affect our environment? 

As a scuba instructor, I was unaware the underwater plants I worked alongside held so many benefits. Let alone that seaweed farming existed near my home on Vancouver Island. I wanted to unveil its mysteries. 

On the day of the tour, the Cascadia Seaweed team and I made our way to Bamfield, British Columbia, where the company’s laboratory and ocean farm were based. While driving from rainforest to sea forest, we discussed how Cascadia is engaging the wisdom of BC’s Indigenous communities. As well as how they support local First Nations businesses, like Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood Limited.

Erin educated me. “These sea plants have been a source of food and income for indigenous peoples for many centuries and when cultivating seaweed along BC’s coastline, success relies heavily on building mutually beneficial agreements with First Nation communities.” With strained affairs in Canada, it was assuring to learn that indigenous partnership was a top priority.

At Cascadia Seaweed's nursery, kelp is seeded and grown until it is ready to mature on the ocean lines.
At Cascadia Seaweed’s nursery, kelp is seeded and grown until it is ready to mature on the ocean lines. Credit: Rachel Huber

On arrival in Bamfield, we toured Cascadia’s nursery. My mouth was left agape entering the medical-like shipping container laboratory. Floor-to-ceiling shelves were filled with fish tanks, each containing dozens of kelp seedlings on small white spools. Former Conservation Biologist Tom Campbell walked us through the nursery. “The fish tanks allow us to guarantee the kelp’s vitality and variety, as well as monitor their progress. For six weeks, sunlight and a constant flow of seawater feed the fast-growing algae. Only these two elements are needed to grow kelp as the plants filter out the nutrients from the seawater.”

“Wow, no fertilizers or supplements?” I exclaimed. “No wonder it’s great for the planet.”

Tom continued, “while the plants are in the lab, we study them to push ahead the industry’s knowledge of seaweed and its effects on the climate. We already know that seaweed can sequester 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests. However, growing wild kelp forests has unique roadblocks. For instance, making sure the seedlings don’t get washed away in the current. It’s far harder than the typical tree planting you’d see on a mountain.”

“It must be with the ocean’s currents.” I agreed.

Tom shared his new development of a dispersion method called Green Gravel. “Using what I call the Green Gravel method, we seed kelp on small pieces of rock instead of spools which are distributed over the side of a boat. The pebble is heavy enough to sink the seedlings to the seabed, where they are ‘planted.’ Eventually growing into a large forest. This development means we can do fast sea reforestation. Green Gravel will allow large-scale planting, which can be used easily around the world.”

“It’s going to be a game changer for beating carbon.” I acknowledged.

Mike Williamson, CEO of Cascadia, contributed “Climate change and carbon have become common household words. Then here comes an old plant with a new purpose, to save our planet. People are waking up to climate change being a real thing and recognizing they must do something about it. Folks focused on it 10-15 years ago, but nothing happened. Then two things changed everyone’s outlook. The pandemic and the effects of climate change furthering food insecurity. As the public is learning that seaweed is a climate-positive superfood, they are hopping on board.” 

I nodded in agreement.

“Seaweed is an environmentally friendly product that is nutritious and versatile. It’s an ingredient in nearly everything from fuel to packaging, and medicines. Seaweed is already in many common household items, like toothpaste, deli meats, and ice cream.”

“It’s even in my favorite ice cream?” I awed. The public is waking up, and I was one of them.

Tom Campbell, a former Conservation Biologist at Cascadia Seaweed educates the group about kelp's many uses worldwide
Tom Campbell, a former Conservation Biologist at Cascadia Seaweed educates the group about kelp’s many uses worldwide. Credit: Rachel Huber
Rachel, of Get Kelp, gets a taste of kelp. Behind her are the Danvers Inlet's growing kelp lines, marked with floats
Rachel, of Get Kelp, gets a taste of kelp. Behind her are the Danvers Inlet’s growing kelp lines, marked with floats. Credit: Rachel Huber

Driving by boat, we followed the life cycle of the Cascadia’s seedlings. We headed along the mountainous coastline to the ocean-based farm, stopping in a calm bay where a small grid of yellow and black floats dotted the surface. Floats marked the vertical seaweed lines.

Tom educated the group as he pulled up a 20-foot sugar kelp line. “Once the seedlings are strong enough, they’re transported to the ocean, where they’ll finish maturing. With BC’s rich coastal conditions, the seedings will mature rapidly for harvest. Growing up to 16 feet long and 8 inches wide within their short life cycle.”  

Mike noted, “large seaweed farms provide many environmental benefits as the seaweed grows. Like carbon sequestration, mitigating ocean acidification, providing habitat, and producing oxygen.

I touched the seaweed stipe as we spoke.

“Cultivating seaweed is an ocean-friendly, carbon-negative, and regenerative way to get our population’s needs met, Erin said.

I recalled a World Bank article I had read. “It’s estimated that seaweed has the potential to add ten percent to the world’s supply of food.” However, I recognized that the province of BC has only scratched the surface of seaweed farming’s potential. 

As we wrapped up our farm tour, I scanned the shoreline. Spotting three bears walking along the beach, two sea otters playing in the sea, and four eagles gliding above. “It’s remarkable to see how the small kelp farm rejuvenated the coastal area.” By reintroducing a healthy underwater forest, the kelp farm was regenerating the local ecosystem.

Erin recalled a message from a lifelong Bamfield fisher, Jesse Thompson. “While harvesting kelp, the area was noticeably alive with sea life. I noticed small rockfish and salmon fry amongst the kelp. As well as a couple of seals and lots of seabirds. I’ve been on the water for over 50 years and have noticed a considerable decline in kelp and seaweeds and fish of all species and seeing this change around the kelp was very noticeable to me. Being Native, the ocean has fed and provided a livelihood for generations of my family, and it’s important that my children and grandchildren can enjoy a healthy future.” 

Erin continued. “As more people are turning to plant-based diets and looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint, seaweed is the answer. The more we grow and consume, the better we will leave the world for future generations. You can’t say that about the many products we have in the market today!”

Natural regeneration in action. Three black bears are spotted from the kelp farm attracted by the influx of birds and fish.
Natural regeneration in action. Three black bears are spotted from the kelp farm attracted by the influx of birds and fish. Credit: Rachel Huber

Later that day, I returned home feeling inspired. It’s no coincidence that seaweed is growing in the spotlight. As the world scrambles to fix global issues, like climate change, seaweed is a nature-based solution that we can grow at home. Kelp farms are carbon-negative and climate-positive, plus they create versatile products. The entire industry is beneficial for communities and our global ecosystem. And, thanks to forward-thinking biologists like Tom, easily scalable. 

The tour convinced me to add more seaweed to my diet and lifestyle. I now sprinkle a dried seaweed mix in my spaghetti sauce, use nori for wraps, and apply seaweed-based face cream. I feel good using it, knowing it’s not just good for my body but for the environment also.

Next time it’s on the menu or you spot some in the store, try it. A seaweed to your lifestyle too. Support the marine algae industry in British Columbia and help turn the tide for our planet.

A special thanks to Cascadia Seaweed for inviting me on this excursion. With a special shout out to Erin Bremner-Mitchell, Communications Manager, for making it one heck of an educational (and fun) trip!