Alaska’s kelp farming industry faces a tough challenge despite high global demand

If you look closely, kelp can be found everywhere from your pantry to your shower shelves: in beer, vitamins, salad dressings, toothpaste, even shampoos. Seaweed is gaining popularity around the world, and with it, seaweed farming.

Alaska’s nascent cabbage industry follows suit. The first commercial farm in the state was established in 2016, and more are being established every year.

But industry experts say Alaska farmers are currently facing a difficult growth spurt.

“There’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation between farmers and processing,” said seaweed trade expert Tamsen Peeples.

Peeples recently visited Unalaska to talk about the state’s growing mariculture industry and offer guidance for people who might be interested in a new seaweed or shellfish farming project.

He said there is a lot of potential for Alaska to become a major supplier of sugar and collard greens. Farmers haven’t had much luck breeding bull calves that don’t produce as well as they do in the wild. However, some companies, such as Jueanu-based Barnacle Foods and Ketchikan company Foraged & Found, harvest wild Alaskan oxtail.

When it comes to sugar and ribbon cabbage, Peeples said there is a lot of interest from farmers and buyers in Alaska, even though the industry remains fairly small.

“There are a lot of people buying seaweed, and these big international buyers are saying that biofuels or bioplastics they expect to see significant scale-up of production in the state,” Peeples said.

A United Nations report In 2018, the global seaweed industry was valued at more than $6 billion. Peeples said the potential demand goes beyond farming for human-level consumption.

“There are so many options for seaweed,” he said. “Many things we consume or use on a daily basis contain seaweed derivatives, whether it’s your sparkling beer, your toothpaste with a nice smooth texture, your ice creams, bioplastics, fertilizers, farm feed, you name it. a lot of apps that haven’t been used yet.”

So the question becomes, “How can the state’s seaweed industry evolve to meet the growing market?”

It may seem as simple as growing more seaweed, but according to Peeples, there are still many questions that need to be answered.

“We have this amazing potential,” he said. “We have this completely untapped resource that is in huge, huge international demand. So how can we develop this industry – unique to Alaska – to be sustainable, responsible and ethical for communities?”

Higher demand does not necessarily translate into higher production, he said, and the industry needs to make sure it can meet these market demands.

“And then coordinating and building those relationships, building those relationships, whether it’s the shopper or the direct farm-to-table consumer,” he said. “For example, there are currently no brokerage services within the state.”

Some small farmers are able to sell their produce to local consumers without problems, he said. But if these farmers want to grow and work with, say, a commercial seafood processor, that’s another place where the disconnect can occur.

“If a potential commercial seafood processor wanted to invest in commercial seaweed processing and shift gears, they’re used to processing hundreds and thousands of pounds of seafood per day,” Peeples said. “So for a kelp farmer, that means you should be able to supply tens of thousands of pounds of seaweed a day in a short amount of time. It is a very seasonal product.”

Tamsen Peeples

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Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Fund, said market mismatches between farmers and buyers are a normal problem for most new and growing industries.

Alaska has an ideal landscape and existing fishing infrastructure that could contribute well to off-season pumpkin production, he said.

“Many of our coastal communities already rely on working on the water,” Decker said. “And so their skills and a lot of their assets, like fishing boats and things like that, they translate very well into this area. So it already gives some economic diversification to the people working on the water.

He said diversification could be particularly beneficial as some fisheries struggle in the face of climate change.

Seaweed and shellfish fisheries also provide shelter and habitat for some marine life. According to Decker, seaweed is very good at absorbing excess nutrients such as nitrogen in the water.

“In Alaska, it may or may not have a lot of application, but there are some places that have a lot of nitrogen runoff from land-based agriculture, mostly from fertilizers that go into water systems and then end up in the ocean.” Decker said. “And so there can be places where it’s very useful. There are various ways in which seaweed appears to be potentially beneficial.”

When it comes down to it, there is a lot of hope for growing cabbage, as well as a lot of funding and a lot of interested investors. Decker said he’s working to facilitate some of those connecting pieces and partners.

“We’re working to bring companies to Alaska,” he said. “And we’re also working with our existing, existing Alaskan seafood processing companies to give them more information on markets and price points and products.”

While there is still much work to be done to develop the industry, Peeples said he is confident Alaska can grow and harvest pumpkins responsibly and sustainably to meet growing global demand.

More information about the state’s seaweed and maritime industry can be found here AFDF website.

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