The majority of people strolling along a beach probably look on the slimy vegetation washed up by the tide with little more than mild curiosity.
For centuries, however, it has been part of the traditional diet for people on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, as well as in Japan and Korea.
Now, fish farming companies and marine scientists in Norway believe seaweed can be a profitable and sustainable source of food.
Runar B Mæland, communications consultant for the Institute of Marine Research, believes that with new production development and larger facilities further out to sea, seaweed can present great opportunities.
This was supported in a new report, Towards A New Marine Industry For Kelp? written by researchers from Norway’s Institute of Marine Research, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the independent research organisation SINTEF and presented to the (digitally staged) Blue Forest event last November.
Seaweed belongs to the algae family and carries several names – kelp, marine meadow, sea tangle or gulf weed to choose but a few. The report says the need for sustainable food production and concern over climate change has led to growing interest in growing different types of macro algae.
These algae have chemical properties that allow them to be used as raw materials in everything from food and feed to packaging. Importantly, they also bind CO² as they grow.
The report argues that Norway has the right conditions for algae cultivation, as well as competence in industry. In fact, they say, the country has the potential to become a leading player in kelp production.
Researcher Kjell Magnus Norderhaug at Norway Institute of Marine Research (HI) says there is a need to develop new cultivation technology and explore possible products and new markets. He stresses it is also necessary to increase knowledge about the impact such an industry would have on the environment.
Today, just over 110 tonnes of sugar kelp and another variant known as butare are grown in Norway, mostly in Nordland, Trøndelag and the western part of the country.
In comparison, global production is 32 million tonnes of macro algae, almost all of which is in Asia.
Kelp could also be used in feed for livestock, as indeed it was up until the 1980s. Kelp contains a number of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other bioactive substances that can have positive effects on meat quality. It also has a high content of organic iodine.
Like forests on land, kelp and other algae absorb CO2. Some of this carbon is eaten by animals and lost through respiration, but an unknown part is transported down into deep water and buried in the bottom sediments.
The potential of this “CO² pump” is huge, but knowledge of the processes is limited. Through cultivation, there is an opportunity to control these processes, either to make biochar (a form of charcoal), pump CO² into the seabed in the form of cultivated biomass or to replace other forms of carbon that have a larger climate footprint, says SINTEF researcher Jorunn Skjermo.
Currently, Norway has only small facilities in relatively sheltered locations, and production is largely manual. The report advocates larger facilities further out to sea, although this does entail some challenges. It recommends pilot facilities to obtain more knowledge before embarking on large scale development.
Two recent success stories surrounding seaweed cultivation indicate what’s possible.
Angelita Eriksen gave up a secure job in Oslo to move north and launch her own company, Lofoten Seaweed. She says: “Research funding of many millions goes to the development of new technology. At the same time, Norway’s sea areas are much larger than the land areas, so there is enough area to take off. I think that the kelp industry is still in its infancy, but it has a lot of potential.”
Many people who had never tried seaweed before are pleasantly surprised at how good it tastes, she adds.
Meanwhile the Faroese seaweed farming company, Ocean Rainforest, recently secured $1.5m in funding to develop offshore seaweed production. This was led by the World Wildlife Fund which has committed $850,000. The remainder comes from a mix of Faroese backers and board members.
Carter Roberts of the WWF said: “We’re excited to support this project because seaweed cultivation holds the potential to reduce these pressures and contribute to a more balanced relationship with nature.”
“But most importantly, it is an affirmation of our sustainable approach to cultivating seaweed in our ocean waters, improving people’s wellbeing, and making a unique and positive contribution to our blue planet.”