B.C. kelp farming is untapped resource

West Coast could meet growing global demand for seaweed while helping salmon farms clean up their act

Wild kelp off the Pacific coast

West Coast could meet growing global demand for seaweed while helping salmon farms clean up their act

Louis Druehl started farming kelp back in 1982, in the aptly named Kelp Bay, just west of Port Alberni. His was the first and, at the time, only commercial seaweed operation in North America. Druehl farmed a one-acre patch of ocean, using ropes seeded with kelp, and sold his produce to a handful of health food stores keen on the plant’s nutritional benefits.

“It’s thought to be a powerful antioxidant, and some people back then thought it caused weight loss, but I don’t know about that,” says the 80-year-old, who taught marine botany at SFU and now lives in Bamfield on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.

Much has changed since the early ’80s. Kelp, which is part of the seaweed family, is now considered a superfood—rich in iodine and several vitamins—and demand is soaring. (“Kelp is the new kale” is a popular slogan among seaweed farmers.) As of 2014, the global seaweed harvest had an estimated value of US$6.4 billion a year, and commercial production had more than doubled over the previous decade. Today seaweed is used in everything from ice cream to cosmetics to animal feed.

Druehl now sells to some of the top restaurants in the province, including Tojo’s and Fairmont Hotel Vancouver’s Notch8 Restaurant & Bar, partly spurred on by the locavore movement. He also supplies Tofino Brewing Co. for its kelp stout and retails packaged kelp products on his Canadian Kelp website. “The chefs are calling up, and they want this stuff, and it goes for a good price,” says Druehl, who still runs his one-acre farm but mostly harvests wild kelp to meet demand. “We can’t pretend to keep up.”

Despite rising interest, Druehl’s operation remains the only such commercial venture in B.C. The vast majority of kelp is still produced in Asia, where demand is highest. But that may not be the case for long. Stephen Cross, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada industrial research chair for colleges in sustainable aquaculture at North Island College in Campbell River, sees kelp farming as a potential new industry for the province—one that could yield economic and environmental benefits.
“We’ve got a huge opportunity here,” Cross says. “We’ve got thousands of kilometres of coastline, and we’re already one of the richest areas, in terms of seaweed diversity, in all of the temperate regions of the world.”

Cross is leading a $1-million pilot study, now in its third year, exploring the viability of growing kelp alongside fish farms. The idea behind the study, which is being done with the BC Salmon Farmers Association: excess nutrients from a fish farm could act as a fertilizer for kelp, supercharging the plant’s growth. In turn, kelp could provide additional revenue while absorbing much of a farm’s waste, not to mention sucking up planet-warming carbon dioxide.

In 2015, Cross’s team hung ropes seeded with baby kelp from buoys at a fish farm near Tofino and measured the growth rates. Seedlings planted closest to the fish pens grew almost 50 per cent faster than those planted further afield. Last year, the researchers expanded their scope, installing kelp-seeded lines at 30 fish farms around Vancouver Island, to get a better sense of growth rates in different oceanic conditions. (At the best sites, kelp seedlings grew nearly four metres in just three months.)

The next step in Cross’s research program is to estimate how much kelp could be grown within the 160-odd fish farming tenures in B.C. and the potential economic yield. The value of the kelp depends on its end market and how it’s processed, he says. But the modest startup cost—”basically, some rope, anchors and a boat”—means it could provide a low-barrier economic opportunity for local communities. “You and I could never afford to start a fish farm—it’s millions of dollars,” Cross explains. “But you and I could put in $5,000 each and become kelp farmers.”

Northern Vancouver Island’s Kwakiutl First Nation has been working closely with Cross—one of the test sites is within its traditional territory—and is keen to see the study results. Tom Child, lands and resource manager with the Kwakiutl, notes that coastal First Nations have a long history with aquaculture, from building clam gardens to harvesting wild kelp covered with nutrient-rich herring roe. “Dr. Cross’s method of aquaculture fits within the Kwakiutl paradigm of sustainability—no unnatural inputs—on a scale that makes sense for us,” he says.

The Kwakiutl are developing a multi-species aquaculture strategy for their community. Their plan, Child says, is to create vertical underwater gardens, with a variety of shellfish, seaweeds and edible plants. “We’re happy with the planning stages so far,” he adds, “and we’re looking forward to the rubber hitting the road on this kelp project.”

Down the coast, Druehl is getting more visitors to his Bamfield home these days. “We bring people in, and we show them how to farm,” he says. Druehl has consulted for kelp restoration projects in Puget Sound and Esquimalt, and for seaweed farming startups in Alaska and California. But for now, at least, his kelp farm remains the only one in B.C.