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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor of Oceanography Gary Freitag walked his audience through his “Seaweed Farming in Alaska” presentation on the evening of Oct. 25, at the University of Alaska Ketchikan Campus library.
Freitag, who also is a SeaGrant Marine Advisory Program agent for Ketchikan, began his talk at the “Ask UAS”event by exploring the question of why entrepreneurs would want to farm seaweed.
He displayed a slide that included many reasons: subsistence use, commercial potential, food security, low-impact farming and increasingly restricted wild harvest.
Farming focuses on the brown and red macroalgaes, Freitag said. Seaweed farming falls under the category of “mariculture,” which also includes shellfish farming.
Freitag explained one of the goals for his lecture.
“Everybody wants to get involved with this, but they don’t realize how really complex it is,” he said.
Seaweed not only is a low-impact crop, Freitag said, but it also can improve the water it is grown in.
“Think of algae, or macro algae, it’s a plant. So, what does it do? It goes through photosynthesis, which means it takes carbon dioxide and generates oxygen and food sources,” he explained.
He continued with “What’s the problem in the ocean right now? Ocean acidification.”
Carbon dioxide can contributute to acidification of seawater.
Freitage explained that “seaweeds potentially take the carbon dioxide out of the water.”
In some hatcheries, he said, the water even has to be re-acidified because of the seaweed’s action.
Another benefit of kelp in the ocean environment is that it provides habitat for fish and other ocean animals. Freitag said he has noticed wild kelp beds disappearing, and has heard fishermen also mention the decline.
The biggest economic drivers of seaweed farming are the manufacture of food products, cosmetics and medicine, Freitag said. Next in economic demand are animal feed and agricultural products. The rising demand for seaweed in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products is predicted to drive the seaweed farming industry in the future, according to a slide shared by Freitag.
The increasing human consumption of seaweed in the Asia Pacific area, as well as increasing agricultural use there, has created a vigorously growing market. In 2015, according to information on one of Freitag’s slides, that area held 80 percent of the world market. Indonesia and China’s markets are predicted to grow most vigorously, followed by Japan, Europe and North America.
Another slide Freitag shared depicted a graph showing the dramatic rise in global seaweed production. In 1950, for instance, global production was about one metric ton per year. By the early 1990s, it had grown to more than five metric tons, and by 2015, it was more than 20 metric tons.
Freitag said that the seaweed farming industry has blossomed into a current $10 billion dollar industry.
“It’s actually the biggest aquaculture product” globally, he added.
Freitag said that seaweed as a food source is gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe because the health benefits — owing to seaweed’s high protein and nutritional profile — are becoming more widely embraced. Overall, more than 80 percent of farmed seaweed is consumed as food.
“It’s extremely healthy for you,” he said.
Freitag dug into the biology, life cycle and propagation needs for different types of algaes.
Environmental factors that determine the success of growing different types of seaweeds include water nutrient levels, the solar index, water temperature and salinity.
“That drives the success of these algaes to grow,” Freitag said.
Freitag outlined some of the challenges Southeast Alaska farmers.
“How do we enter this market? If we start generating a lot of these seaweeds, what are we going to do with them? Right now, that’s a real issue for some of the farmers.”
He also said that the permitting process in Alaska is long, taking about 18 months for an entrepreneur just starting out. He explained that it can be a lot simpler for a farmer who already owns a mariculture farm that grows a product like oysters, because they would apply only for a permit “alteration,” a much quicker process.
Alaska SeaGrant has received a national grant to diversify existing oyster farms in Southeast Alaska, said Freitag.
“We’re just trying to see if we could get people to diversify their economy,” Freitag said. Creating a new revenue stream for oyster farmers is important, he added, because they can experience pauses in production. Growing seaweed simultaneously could smooth out those dips.
Freitag shared slides depicting the life cycle of seaweeds, and several ways they are propagated world wide. Usually, spores are collected, then grown in tanks. Many producers utilize “seed string culture” to grow the microscopic young spores. Then, they finish growing the young seaweeds on ropes in the water when they are mature enough.
Once they are in the ocean water, Freitag said there is some maintenance.
“You gotta be able to go out and keep an eye on temperature, salinity, turbidity, nitrogen levels. Nitrogen levels have a lot to do with whether this stuff survives,” he said. He added that even flotation must be monitored, because when some species grow larger, they don’t float, hanging tons of weight on the line. Because the seaweed needs to be at the surface to use the sunlight for photosynthesis, floats must be added to the line.
The young seaweed is put into the sea water in September and October, then is ready to harvest by March.
He mentioned some challenges with protecting the growing seaweed from attackers and competitors such as diatoms, other algae, fungi, cyanobacteria, protozoa and grazers.
The key, he said, is that farmers need to learn the specifics of the life cycle and needs of each species of seaweed. That doesn’t mean that farmers can’t innovate different methods to grow their chosen species, however.
“You can grow it in different ways,” he said. “In fact, in history, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.”
He showed slides of Ketchikan-areaoyster farms with bull kelp beds added. One local, Trevor Sande, markets his kelp to a Juneau company that produces kelp salsa commercially.
“We actually do have a niche market,” Freitag said. “The only thing we really have available right now are niche markets for us.”
He listed many potential markets available to local farmers, including foods, cosmetics and biofuels.
Getting their product to markets is another big challenge for Southeast Alaska seaweed farmers. Freitag said there are options being explored, such as hiring fish packers to bring the harvest to fish processing plants before it is shipped to buyers. He said that local plants already have indicated an interest in processing seaweed. That would dovetail nicely with the fishing season, as the seaweed harvest is done before fishing season starts up.
Techniques to keep the seaweed fresh after harvest and during transport are other aspects being explored, Freitag said. Also, researchers are testing the viability of different seaweed species in Southeast Alaska.
The Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, an extension of UAF, is working on farmed seaweed stabilization, energy needs, desirable products, nutritional value and food safety, Freitag said.
Different species of seaweed are being grown experimentally in several areas near Ketchikan with the support of grants, Freitag said. There are four sites: One in George Inlet, two at Annette Island and one near Saxman. Farming areas will need to undergo water testing as well, Freitag said, as seaweeds absorb metals, pollutants and other chemicals in the water. The water composition would need to be known before choosing a site.
Freitag explained in a follow-up phone call that the four growing sites are a pilot program for the area.
“It’s a demonstration project for the communities to see how you go about this industry,” he said. The species they will focus on are sugar laminaria, ribbon kelp, bull kelp and porphyra.
Freitag said that seaweed harvested and farming equipment from the experiments is planned to be given to local Native groups, possibly through the nonprofit marine science center and shellfish hatchery Oceans Alaska. The communities also will receive training so they can continue the farming project if desired.
One attendee asked of seaweed farming locally: “How big of a farm have to have to make it worthwhile?
“I don’t know the answer to that, in truth,” Freitag said.
He said he has heard that seaweed can sell for 60 cents per pound. He added, “From an economic standpoint, it has the potential to be a very, very large driving force in communities if we can get the industry going. I just don’t know. I think it’s going to take 10 years, to be honest with you.”