Will Northwest Seaweed Farming Finally Take Off?
Early this year, Seagrove Kelp harvested its first crop. Photographs Courtesy Madelaine Voegeli / SeaGrove Kelp
Fog blanched the horizon. Only a suggestion of distance—steely water, the dark outlines of land. On this late October morning in 2019, Markos Scheer was in Alaska on a gamble. At the start of the year, he’d closed his Seattle maritime law practice to devote his attention to his new business, Seagrove Kelp Co. Today, he set out with a crew to start planting the biggest seaweed farm in North America.
Scheer and Dr. Tiff Stephens, Seagrove’s chief scientist and research director, had worked to grow millions of kelp seeds—kelps are a subset of seaweeds—on 150,000 feet of line wrapped around PVC pipes in their nursery’s large glowing tanks.
On a clear day, mountains and conifers jut up around the kelp farm’s site on Doyle Bay, just off Prince of Wales Island, at Alaska’s southernmost tip. Here, in the fog, Scheer and a small crew headed out with truckloads of orange buoys, piled like balloons before a prom, and about 6,000 feet of line bristling with bull kelp seeds.
Planting anything in the Alaskan sea in fall comes with some risk. Wind can blow 100 knots. Waves can rise three feet. Cold water threatens hypothermia. But, really, the entire enterprise was a risk. No one in Alaska had built a kelp farm this big. Vast seaweed farming operations exist in places like Korea and China—hubs of an industry valued at nearly $60 billion last year. But U.S. production is nascent and boutique, particularly on the West Coast. A typical U.S. farm is maybe 20 acres and probably in Maine. This plot of ocean Scheer set out to seed was 100 acres, and he had leases in process for another 700 acres nearby. Research, some of it centered in Washington state, suggests seaweeds are some of the most sustainable, nutritious things we can eat—a tool to fight ocean acidification, feed the world, and restore Native food sovereignty. Yet even though seaweeds are as vital and abundant here as our terrestrial forests, few people have successfully farmed them in the Northwest.
So Scheer and his crew were making methods up as they went, unspooling that kelp line around ropes and planting them in the sea. “We found that the learning curve was sometimes just painful,” he says. Eventually they got all the line in the water and waited. They’d done tests, but each new kelp crop is an educated guess—how well will it grow in this specific location?
If you looked at the farm from the surface, even zipping along beside it in a boat, you’d see little. Rows of orange buoys bobbed, like lap swim at the local pool writ large. The seasons slid by: Snow crusted the mountain peaks around the bay. Kelp lines lay suspended nine feet below the surface. First, small brown sprouts sought light. A holdfast latched to the lines. Hollow bulbs ballooned with carbon monoxide gas and floated the seaweeds toward the surface. Charged with sunlight, they sucked nutrients—carbon, nitrogen—from the water. By March, as the coronavirus pandemic halted society, the kelp thrived, growing a meter a week in its prime. The bull kelp—a young version of those long whips that wash up on West Coast beaches—looked like green radishes growing among wispy, translucent leaves.
Then, in April, came the herring.
Their stocks have been down for decades. But this year, the fish mysteriously abounded in the Northwest. They arrived en masse near Seattle, by Bainbridge Island, where Scheer lives. In Craig, Alaska, about six miles south of the Seagrove farm, the spawn was nearly double the record high. The fish laid so many white eggs around islands that, from above, it looked like cirrus clouds had fallen in the sea. No one had ever recorded a herring spawn in Doyle Bay, but now they swarmed, beading blades of Seagrove kelp with tiny eggs, as if packing them in Styrofoam.
For the environmentalist in Scheer it was a thrill—a vital fish stock, surging. For a farmer during his first harvest, it was disaster. His crew couldn’t touch the kelp. They let the herring hatch. He’d hoped to yield 200 or 300 tons this year, 500 eventually. This June, after waiting an extra two months to harvest, they pulled out 40 tons—maybe a fifth of what they’d grown.
On the phone this fall, Scheer—who has a folksy, flannel-and-glasses demeanor—searched for a less than dismal way to describe the hit: “It was… It was… It was a challenge.”
He’d planned to dispatch frozen kelp blocks to restaurants along the West Coast for around $2 a pound—competing with kale or spinach prices. But even before he found himself the CEO of a company with 40 tons of kelp just as a pandemic hobbled the restaurant industry, a question hummed from the core of his business: Are Americans ready to accept seaweed as a staple instead of a novelty?
For whatever reason, our rhetoric around seaweed tends to stall. “‘Eat your seaweed!’ Yuk! Don’t so hastily dismiss this offering from nature,” begins a Seattle Times feature from 1983. Sushi was catching on in the city—why shouldn’t seaweed come with it? Yet by 2017, a Times headline had barely gotten further. “Kelp: It’s good for you, and it tastes good. Really.” The article centered on how Seattle restaurateur Matt Dillon cooked with kelp at his restaurants Upper Bar Ferdinand and Sitka and Spruce (both now permanently closed).
I was actually a cook at Sitka and Spruce that year. I too grew enthralled with various seaweeds. We pickled flecks of hijiki and ribbons of dulse, for their spikes of aquatic acidity. We pulverized nori into an umami-rich dust. We fortified broths with kombu. But all these came from Korea or Japan, dried and plastic wrapped.
Only once in my time there did a forager drop off fresh sugar kelp. I opened the bag and lifted the long, semitranslucent, olive-green sheet, like a slippery lasagna noodle. I grew up in Washington, trying to rope my brothers with bull kelp on the beach. As a cook I’d worked with dried seaweeds for years. I didn’t know what to do with this fresh stuff. I asked another cook. He wasn’t sure either. Do you need to cook it? We ate some raw and waited to see what would happen. Eventually we toasted it on the grill and garnished a fish entree. The kelp felt new. It had a liveliness, the briny rubbery crunch of raw geoduck.
Our salmon and halibut, our beets and eggs and milk, all came from the Northwest. Why, when you can reach into the Puget Sound and take seaweeds by the fistful, did we rely on stuff from Asia? Turns out you can’t commercially harvest kelp in Washington—the forager had slipped us some low-key contraband. With a permit, you can harvest 10 pounds a day for private use. That just led to another question: Why isn’t anyone farming it around here?
Around 2013, a wave of headlines started positing kelp as the new kale, the next major superfood, our potential ecological salvation. Although Western cultures largely eschew seaweeds as food, we’ve long intuited their benefits. In French writer Jules Verne’s 1870 sci-fi novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo farms the ocean, eating fish, seaweeds, and sea cucumbers. “I have renounced the food of the earth,” he tells the bemused narrator, “and I am never ill now.”
Like mushrooms, seaweeds aren’t technically plants or animals and share some qualities with both. Some have an almost meaty chew. Depending on the type, they can be rich in iodine, protein, trace minerals, omega-3 oils, and vitamins. Some varieties offer the best vegan sources of B12. One study estimated a “marine garden” the size of Washington state could provide enough protein to feed earth’s population, all while cleaning pollutants.
Bren Smith is U.S. kelp cultivation’s bellwether. The subject of many recent seaweed articles, he founded GreenWave, an East Coast nonprofit focused on training regenerative ocean farmers. He told me the Pacific Northwest has “huge potential.” The Puget Sound has one of the most diverse seaweed floras on earth, with over 600 species. We have natural kelp forests that provide vital habitat for ocean life, like salmon and rockfish, and act as carbon sinks. Yet scan the menu at most Seattle restaurants beating the drum of Northwest bounty, and you’ll find very little kelp. One local seaweed farming hopeful told me this region is the industry’s “last frontier.” Even Scheer headed out to the Northwest’s furthest border, Alaska, to start Seagrove.
How do you grow a kelp farmer? Begin, perhaps, with a mother who studied botany, who worked in reforestation as a tree thinner, who in the 1970s planned to start a women’s commune in Idaho. She did not, but she built a tiny house, where she and two sons lived. No running water, no power. A space smaller, at 100 square feet, than Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin.
In 1982, on a contract to thin trees, she moved the children to Prince of Wales Island, eventually to a place, not quite a town, called Hollis. Another cabin, this one floating on a raft of logs. In the winter, when snow glazed the roof and shingles, it looked like a postcard from some gold-panning frontier.
After a couple years there, Markos Scheer’s discontent grew. He’d lived without running water or power since he was eight. “I was tired of chopping wood,” he says. He didn’t pick this homesteader life, and he saw the rest of the world living normally. So, at 15, he left.
First, he moved in with a Native family in Klawock, a nearby town. He felt like their fifth child. He was happier. After a year, he got emancipated, legally an adult, and found an apartment in Ketchikan.
How do you grow a kelp farmer? Send him looking for a job at Silver Lining Seafoods, a processing company. The funk of fish repelled him, but he took work in the freezer department anyway. Salmon mostly, but also halibut, black cod, sea cucumbers, geoducks, spot prawns.
Then send him to school. After years bouncing between Alaska’s fishing industry and colleges, he got a law degree in 1999 and joined a Seattle firm, representing seafood companies, producers, and vendors.
In 2007, he joined the nonprofit Alaskan Fisheries Development Foundation. As the group looked at how to further Alaskan fishing, “we kept coming back to mariculture.” Alaska has all the infrastructure—processing, transportation—in place for peak salmon season. Much of the year, it’s dormant. Kelp season and the main fishing season dovetail: September to June for kelp, June to September for salmon.
Nowhere does West Coast seaweed farming have a greater chance to thrive than Alaska. Of course, Alaska. Seattle is famous for seafood, but we’re the port, not the source.
Since the Russians sought fur in the 1800s, Alaska’s economic identity has centered on extraction: gold, oil, fish, trees. Scheer grew invested in “a paradigm shift,” from pillage to restoration. Kelp can provide that, especially when paired with shellfish farming (he plans to integrate oysters next year).
Eventually it hit him: “Holy cow, maybe I’m the guy to do this.” When he went looking for a site, he headed back to the place he’d left: Prince of Wales Island. At that point, West Coast seaweed farming was nearly nonexistent. But he was not the first to try.
The conference space was packed, maybe 100 people in the room, “just absolutely rabid,” says Tom Mumford. It was 1990, and these protesters had traveled 140 or so miles to Washington’s capitol in Olympia. Governor Booth Gardner was supposed to speak but when he saw the crowd, he turned to Mumford, said something like, “You’re on your own,” and walked out.
The source of the crowd’s ire was not an oil pipeline. Not the growing specter of globalization that’d incite Seattle riots nine years later. These people were pissed about nori. Back then Mumford was a young algologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. He had been trying since the mid-1970s to get seaweed farming going. By 1987 he was doing DNR research on a project: A company called American Sea Vegetable hoped to start two big nori farms near Anacortes, a combined 965 acres. It was already operating one of two seaweed farms in the U.S., a small test operation off Vashon Island, just south of Seattle. (The first seaweed farm in North America had started five years before, near Vancouver Island.) Proponents figured the nori farms would be a societal good: a carbon-absorbing crop, 100 new jobs, lease fees going to parks and schools.
But immediately letters to the editor of the Anacortes American newspaper began. The farms would impinge on fishing and boating waters. Nets might wash ashore. Wouldn’t farms pollute air and sea? And what an eyesore. Property values could drop, residents warned, from “view pollution.”
Mumford issued a DNR report: Yes, the areas would be off-limits to fishing and recreation. No, the farm shouldn’t harm the environment. The uproar didn’t abate. People spread lies about Japanese backing. Three hundred protesters gathered near Anacortes for a “beach-in.” A bearded man in a striped shirt and skipper’s cap got on a PA. The crowd had signs: “Save the San Juans. Say No to Nori.” “Wrap Your Sushi in Cabbage.”
After over two years, the protesters won. Mumford chalks it up to Nimbyism. But the story illustrates in part why no seaweed industry flourishes in Washington today—the competing interests in state waters. To get a lease you must extract multiple permits in a tangled process. Then there are the fishers, the shippers, the yachters, the kayakers, the shorefront denizens. Most importantly: 20 treaty tribes have fishing rights in Western Washington, and at a given location a farmer may need the okay from several. After years of failures with things like salmon farming, some tribes have been rightfully cautious with new mariculture.
Scheer was oddly well fitted to navigate such interests. The permitting intricacies? After 20 years in law, “frankly it was pretty rote.” The community aspect? Prince of Wales has only around 5,500 residents, and Scheer had kept in touch some. Instead of letting DNR reach out to the local Craig Tribe, he held public events and got active support. “If this industry is to reach its potential,” he says of working with Indigenous peoples, “they need to be part of it, and they will be part of it.”
Kelp is a traditional food for tribes all along the West Coast. And Indigenous interest in farming is growing. Last year, Dune Lankard—an Eyak Athabaskan Native and longtime activist from Cordova, Alaska—partnered with Bren Smith and GreenWave to make sure that Indigenous concerns are represented in Alaska’s blooming industry. He, like others I spoke with, is aware that if big companies move in and take over, as they have with most fishing and land agriculture, “this industry could go in the wrong direction pretty quickly.”
Still, he’s optimistic that this can be “one of the first real green jobs that makes sense for the Natives” and other fishermen. They’d be paid to restore the ocean and open up greater access to traditional foods. Since East Coast methods won’t translate to Alaska, he’s interested in Seagrove and others “creating a model that can be duplicated,” particularly one that’s helping herring, which have been depressed near Cordova, spawn.
Some enthusiasm is building around the Sound, too. Nik Matsumoto, a shellfish biologist working for the Suquamish Tribe, says no tribal members have proposed their own farms, but he and others are curious about its potential. “I really want to fast-forward a couple years and be out on a boat on our seaweed farm,” he says. He’s particularly interested in new research showing seaweeds’ benefits to shellfish. One such study took place just 10 miles north of the Suquamish reservation.
If you have read or watched something about kelp farming in the last five years, you’ve likely come across a recent study on Washington state’s lone commercial-scale kelp farm. About 10 years ago, Joth Davis, a Puget Sound shellfish farmer and fisheries PhD, began noticing that his oyster larvae were struggling. The cause was this: About a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions end up in the sea, acidifying the ocean and corroding shellfishes’ calcified armor. In the Puget Sound—because of human pollution, algae blooms, and a tidal effect—acidification is worse.
In 2013, Davis and Betsy Peabody, executive director of nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund, won a grant to integrate kelp into Davis’s shellfish farm. After serving on an ocean acidification panel, Davis says, “it was just a no-brainer to think about seaweed.” In 2016, they added sugar kelp to his five-acre plot in Hood Canal. Inside and outside the farm, they hung cages filled with oysters, mussels, and pteropods, a tiny sea snail that’s suffered in souring waters. Sensors would gauge water changes.
The hope was not that 18 lines of kelp could drop the Puget Sound’s acidity, but that they might create a halo effect, scrubbing the calcifiers’ water and helping them grow. Trouble was, they found, the current whipped by so quickly at the farm’s location that the sensors couldn’t track the effects on water. “I mean, imagine trying to transcribe something written on the side of a subway as it’s zipping past you,” says Meg Chadsey, a Washington Sea Grant ocean acidification specialist affiliated with the study.
The oysters grew faster, though, and all the species’ shells improved. Had researchers let the kelp mature fully it would’ve yielded nearly 25 tons in 2018, absorbing about a third of the carbon that a standard passenger car emits in a year, as well as the nitrogen equivalent to 430 pounds of lawn fertilizer.
Peabody says kelp’s usefulness is “a more complicated picture” than she imagined in 2013, now considering the importance of location, regulations, and treaty rights. And seaweeds are themselves under threat. Natural kelp forests in Puget Sound are dying from rising ocean temperatures and oxygen depletion. While kelp is undeniably a more sustainable food source than many others, the study recognized that, given farming and transport’s emissions, we need more research to know to exactly what degree. Either way, the study posits, “It is clear that the most effective way to address ocean acidification is through rapid decarbonization of society.” Kelp can help us. Alone it can’t save us.
The study cued a tide of local interest. Chadsey was getting several calls and emails a week, so eventually Sea Grant organized a pair of seaweed workshops. Would-be farmers gathered in Tacoma and got the rundown on macroalgae’s potential. Tom Mumford, the algologist now in his 70s, with a white beard and a green Patagonia vest, took the lectern for the first presentation, heartened by the current excitement. “For years, I was sort of the guy in the back that always talked about kelp.”
He dove into seaweeds’ dizzying range of applications: Foods. Fertilizer. Anti-wrinkle creams. Biochemicals, like the carrageenan that thickens ice creams and shampoos. A promising biofuel or bioplastic. (Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one, you buy your kelp salad in a kelp-plastic package and drive it home in a kelp-powered car.) If you feed cattle a bit of a red algae often used in Hawaiian poke, it reduces their famously methaneous burps by 70 percent. Chinese researchers are investigating algae as an Alzheimer’s prevention.
The possibilities are thrilling, yet Joth Davis’s small kelp farm brought up another quandary. “There is a great deal of uncertainty about—what am I going to do with all this kelp?” Davis says. “It is not necessarily a valuable product when it hits the dock.” Betsy Peabody and her husband brewed some sugar kelp beer. This year, Davis is turning his 15,000-pound harvest into a line of food products. His first largely went to an organic farm as fertilizer.
About a third of Markos Scheer’s kelp became fertilizer, too. The pandemic, and that herring hit, diverted his restaurant plans for now. Most of the crop went to companies like Barnacle Foods, an Alaskan maker of seaweed condiments such as pickles and a bull whip hot sauce. The remainder of Scheer’s kelp sits frozen in cold storage.
This September, I got an 11-pound brick of winged kelp (similar to Japanese wakame) and another of small bull kelp. When they thawed, I faced a microcosm of the seaweed farmer’s conundrum. What does one person—with limited freezer space—do with 22 pounds of kelp? I offered it to friends, a coworker, roommates. Responses came back: “What do you do with kelp?” “I wouldn’t know where to begin cooking that.” “Make me a kelp purse.” No one took any.
So I got to work. The winged kelp I rubbed with oil and roasted into big chips, like less processed nori. I cooked more into fried rice. I added some to a sort of cioppino. I blanched and sliced and marinated it into a salad. It behaved like a milder, rubberier kale. Unseasoned, it wasn’t especially flavorful.
The small, radish-like bull kelp was more exciting. I sliced one bulb into circles and sauteed them. When they hit the pan, they transformed like mood rings, shocked from brown to a gummy worm green. The pieces popped and splashed my mouth with sea brine, as if someone crossed a clam with an asparagus.
When restaurants return after the pandemic, surely Scheer can land some kelp in the sort of kitchens that covet foraged mushrooms. Whether that translates to other menus and to store shelves remains to be seen. It’s hard to compete with Asian prices. The global seaweed harvest is some 30 million tons a year. In context, he says, his farm is “almost irrelevant. It’s a rounding error.”
And his kelp is less familiar than a Costco pack of nori snacks. Last year he worked with a Tukwila food science company to make Americanized recipes—ravioli stuffed with winged kelp, a vegetarian bull kelp chowder. Next year he plans to send premade products to retail—that chowder, maybe, or dried kelp sticks.
He won’t be without competition. On Vancouver Island, Cascadia Seaweeds has a couple of 2.5-acre kelp farms in the water, and plans to ramp up to around 1,250 acres within five years, unleashing a line of seaweed jerky, chips, and nori. Provided both farms keep running, together they’ll test whether we’re finally ready to reacquaint ourselves with kelp.
To understand how foundational seaweeds are to humans—to see what, in the march onward, we’ve forgotten—you need to go back. Way back. More than a billion years. After an ice age, things thawed. Then a photosynthesizing bacterium knit together with an organism called a eukaryote. They formed microalgae, which much later mutated into macroalgae, or seaweeds. Some researchers argue that seaweeds’ iodine and omega-3 oils were key in Homo sapiens development.
For thousands of years, for people all over, seaweed remained vital. The Pacific Coast of the Americas is known as the “kelp highway” for the migration brought on by its bounty. Locally, Northwest tribes deployed seaweeds variously: as food, medicine, fertilizer, a kind of lid to steam open mussels and clams on hot rocks. The Makah Tribe would dry bull kelp into fishing line and nets.
Then, the European invaders. What we now recognize as American food—our wheat and beef—overshadowed what naturally grows here. Native diets underwent a “forced assimilation,” says Lisa Barrell, who manages the traditional foods project for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, on the Olympic Peninsula. The tribe long gathered and ate seaweeds. “Like so many other things, we just stopped.”
But since precolonial diets are showing results in reversing diseases like diabetes, Barrell and program assistant Mackenzie Grinnell have been working to bring seaweeds back. They turned up a few traditional preparations—soup, a wrap for salmon. Today, those tasted a bit bland. So they tweaked for modern palates: dried sprinkles to put on popcorn, bull kelp pickles.
Growing up, Grinnell, who’s 26, didn’t eat seaweed. He and his cousins used it like I did as a kid. They’d wrap it around sand balls so they wouldn’t fall apart mid-pitch. They’d hit each other with bull kelp. Some older tribal members still have food associations—an aunt’s soup recipe, say—but they’ve been covered in a layer of memorial dust. So each spring he and Barrell take a group out to gather and then prepare seaweeds. It’s become a communal investigation. They’ll pick up a blade, or take a bite, and bring a food from the past suddenly into the present.