Capital Daily

The Burgeoning Seaweed Industry on Vancouver Island

Episode Summary

We learn about the up and coming industry of seaweed. We’ll explore the positive environmental impacts it can have, and a local company that has already begun growing and cultivating on the Island.

Episode Notes

We learn about the up and coming industry of seaweed. We’ll explore the positive environmental impacts it can have, and a local company that has already begun growing and cultivating on the Island. 

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Episode Transcription

Disclaimer: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Jackie: My name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Thursday, May 14th. Welcome to the Capital Daily podcast. Today on the show, we learn more about an up-and-coming industry that is seaweed. First, we’ll learn about why the industry is important when it comes to climate change and just what seaweed is good for, then we’ll speak to a local company that is already deeply invested. Though it spends almost all of its life under the ocean surface, seaweed - and the burgeoning industry that is springing up around it - is having its day in the sun.

Jackie: There is a global push to ramp up the seaweed industry, and those in favour cite its numerous environmental benefits. Seaweed crops are particularly powerful when it comes to fighting climate change and can be cultivated alongside shellfish and fin-fish farms to mitigate their environmental impacts. It can be used as food for humans and animals, but some types of seaweed can also be substitutes for petroleum in the creation of both biofuel and bioplastics. The United Nation’s Global Compact published a ‘Seaweed Manifesto’ in 2018. And on Vancouver Island, businesses and communities are taking note. Co-producer Emily Vance spoke with two people who are active in Vancouver Island’s seaweed industry. Emily, who are we going to hear from first?

Emily: First up, I spoke with Louis Druehl. He’s a long-time marine biologist and seaweed cultivator in Bamfield. He was actually the first commercial kelp grower in North America, back in the 1980s. His company is called Canadian Kelp Resources. He tells us about what drew him to the industry back in the 1980s and how he’s seen it pick up speed over the past seven years.

Emily: We thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. 

Louis: Well, you’re welcome. 

Emily: Okay, so you've been involved in the seaweed industry for quite some time. Can you tell me when and why you got involved?

Louis: Well, I started off as an academic, and I taught marine botany at Simon Fraser. During my studies, I was, of course, involved with kelp. And the provincial government decided that they wanted to determine whether or not it's conceivable to farm kelp in British Columbia. So around 1978, they asked me to head up a small team to explore this possibility. And so, for the next five years, we did this. And we were successful, but we were able to adopt Asian and other farming techniques to the British Columbia situation. At the end of the five years, one of my technicians, Catherine Lloyd, went out and started the first commercial farm, kelp farm and outside of Asia. And she operated it here in Banfield for about ten years. And since then, there's been a heck of a dribble of cow farms. I call them boutique farms, people doing a little bit here a little bit there, nothing really large. And then, after a couple of decades of this, we came to the era of Cascadia seaweed, which is now and the era of the big farm. So that's where we find ourselves today.

Emily: Your company, Canadian Kelp Resources, does a number of things. Can you walk me through what you do?

Louis: Yeah, sure. Well, we have a line of edible kelp products that we market. We produce kelp seed for kelp farmers. We advise people on how to kelp farm. We do experimental work on introducing new species for kelp priming, new ways of using kelp farming techniques to go into areas where the kelp beds are. I'm not talking about bull kelp and the giant kelp. These beds are diminishing for reasons we don't understand that are definitely related to climate change, and hopefully, we can reseed them with these new techniques. So we do a variety of things like that and had to throw in that I'm also a novelist and the editor of the local paper, and I got some great grandkids. Good Life.

Emily: That is a good life. That sounds wonderful. And this is not just happening on Vancouver Island; there’s a bit of a global push happening towards seaweed. Can you tell me about that?

Louis: Yeah, so the big push right now is happening in the southern hemisphere. So we're talking about Australia, the Tasmania area, off of the coast of South Africa, and a lot of Arctic islands. These areas have very rich nutrient waters. What's unique is that they're rich year-round, we have rich waters here, but there's a seasonality to it. So our plants do very well for a while, and then they don't do so well. Down in those climates, however, they do well all the time. So the idea is to build large farms, which may impact the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most recently, a group out of Namibia, just north of South Africa, are talking about putting in a $60 million farm, or series of farms, as more or less a model to see if we can really have large farms, and people were talking about five times the surface area of Australia. So this is pretty big business, and I think it's an engineering nightmare. But, anyhow, that's where it is now. And a lot of the push is to counter climate change. Elsewhere, their farming kelp in Europe, they're also countering climate change, but the attitude is slightly different. They produce the kelp as a biofuel. They use it as a source of material to make biodegradable plastics, which otherwise would be using petroleum products. And also fertilizers, which require petroleum products. So not so much by cleaning up the atmosphere, but not allowing the use of so much petroleum was able to counter the environmental change. So it's all heading towards the same thing, hopefully, a nice clean planet.

Emily: How instrumental Do you think seaweed and kelp farming can be in working to reduce the impacts of climate change?

Louis: I think it would be definitely a significant player. There's not going to be any one solution to how we handle this. I mean, just taking the gasoline-burning vehicles off the road would make a phenomenal difference. Not to mention the airplanes. So but that would that alone probably wouldn't do it either now  we’re so far along in putting up carbon in the air. But everything we just have to add up with a lot of other successful enterprises. So I don't think there is an answer. 

Emily: Louis, thank you so much for taking the tie to explain this all. I appreciate it. 

Louis: Thank you, Emily. 

Jackie: You also spoke with another guest for this episode. Who's that?


Emily: So I spoke with Bill Collins of the Sydney-based company, Cascadia Seaweed, who Louis mentioned in his interview. Bill went a bit more in-depth about how seaweed has the potential to fight the impacts of climate change. And he told me about what Cascadia is working on accomplishing and his overall vision for the aquaculture industry on Vancouver Island.

Emily: Well, Bill, thank you so much for joining us on the show. I appreciate it. 

Bill: You're more than welcome.

Emily: Okay, so gonna start pretty broadly. What is Cascadia Seaweed, and what do you do?

Bill: We're seaweed cultivators. So, we have a team of 20 people on Vancouver Island and soon to be other parts of the British Columbia coast. We cultivate seaweed, which means that we create seed in a nursery from natural source stock, of which there are 630 species—growing off our coast here. We cultivate the seaweed. We create seedlings from it. We plant those out in firms in the coastal zones of British Columbia. And the seaweed grows like a weed. It can be up to a million a metre and a half long after four months of being in the water. And then we go out in a boat, we haul the rope in, cut the seaweed off into fish totes, and bring it to processing plants to be made into highly nutritious food. The big difference is we're not harvesters in that we don't extract natural biomass, we create our own biomass. In so doing, we have a lot of other benefits to the environment, which I can talk about when you wish. 

Emily: I would love to hear of those but first, how and why did you get this started? 

Bill: Well, I was working on a project with Vancouver Island economic Alliance. And the goal of this organization is to build out business on Vancouver Island. One of the projects we had was to identify new business sectors to which Vancouver Island had a global advantage. So those sectors would include value for wood, for example, or cleantech. In the CRD area, there's a critical mass of engineering capability that really could be put to use for technologies that are clean and sustaining. And we also looked at cultural tourism because many First Nations along our coast have incredible histories. They would like to share their history, and folks would like to hear that. So we believed that they would represent another incredible business opportunity. Aquaculture, particularly seaweed, was where we landed as part of the four. So it was a generic study, give us four great business cases, which we did. The seaweed business case was so compelling. I said, “somebody has to do this and might as well be me.” And working with a couple of colleagues who saw the idea and urged Cascadia Seaweed’s formation. So between the three founders, we all agreed it was a good idea. And we all had the energy to put into it and solicited other folks to share the dream. So that's how seaweed Cascadia seaweed was founded. I will say, however, that as part of the study for businesses that have a sort of natural competitive advantage in the globe. When you look at aquaculture in general, it caused us a little delay in considering it. Because if you're an investor from, say, South Korea, and you said, “Well, where's Vancouver Island, and why should I be interested in aquaculture?” If you just did a straight search on aquaculture in British Columbia, you would see a very engaging debate about the benefits or the destructive aspects of fish farming. And so that would not appeal to investors that didn't know anything about Vancouver Island. But when you take one layer of the onion back, what you see is aquaculture represents three relatively distinct industries; finfish aquaculture, shellfish aquaculture and the new kid on the block, seaweed aquaculture. Between the three of them, they constitute a source of protein that's going to be important for feeding the world in the future if we can do it sustainably. Growing seaweed is is a great model for a sustainable new industry that feeds the planet. So from a business opportunity perspective, if you looked at seaweed as a food, you'll find folks like the World Bank saying by 2035, 10% of the food biomass on earth should come from sea greens because we've really not tapped into that as a high protein source of food. And it's really important. Those were compelling reasons why we took up the challenge of delivering this new business into this new sector.

Emily: You touched on several things I'd like to go into, but one of them is you just mentioned the global shift towards seaweed. Can you explain why that's happening and how Vancouver Island and Cascadia fit into that puzzle?

Bill: Yes, so I think folks have asked, “if this is such a good idea, why hasn't it been done before?” Because seaweed has been cultivated on the island here for more than four decades. Well, the answer is that it's the stars and the moon needed more closely to be aligned, shall I say? What came together was a couple of things. First of all, massive investment in animal alternative food, plant-based protein, and as you know, beyond meats and impossible burgers and any number of other vegan food sources that folks want to live a better lifestyle and eat less meat. And so that's just the normal progression as we all look at optimal health conditions—so plant-based food, big investment in there. Secondly, the attention to climate in everything that we do. There hasn't been an election in the democratic world in in in at least a decade or two that hasn't had climate action as part of its mandate. So it's in people's minds, front and center. We have to generate sustainable industries and not just sustainable industries; we need to be climate positive. So the more we can do this, the better. So between climate action and health and wellness through plant-like protein, the stars and the moon aligned when seaweed being algae, it's not a plant. But the point is, seaweed comes from way lower down in the food chain from the ocean; it’s not a bio-accumulator. So, therefore, to extract the nutrition from the seawater embedded in seaweed improves coastal ocean health. And that's really important. So if you can do if you can feed people, well, performing climate-positive industry, you've hit two really important points. And that's really why we're doing seaweed and why we're doing it now.

Emily: Can you go into some of the climate benefits of seaweed?

Bill: Yeah, so the one that's most notable today is the fact that as seaweed grows, it gets this nutrition from the seawater, and the nutrients in the seawater and, of course, some sun energy providing it providing delivers some nutrition from the sun. But as it grows, it essentially takes up carbon. Now, if maybe one way to think about it is in the grand scheme of things, the goal of Cascadia and others is to decarbonize the atmosphere and re carbonize the biosphere. So seaweed absorbs about twenty times more carbon dioxide than a terrestrial plant. So we do have an ability that takes carbon into the structure of the seaweed. There's a large move afoot to quantify how much carbon can be extracted out of the atmosphere through the ocean into seaweed. So that as that work is being done, you also have the ancillary work, which is basically blue carbon. Many notable science bodies recognize the role of mangroves and eel grasses or seagrass in the extraction of co2 in that process and the sequestration of co2, which is the reason that we have to protect eelgrass and we have to protect mangrove seaweed is another Lego block in that pillar of blue carbon. And by quantifying it, we hope that folks will recognize that, as important as it is, in say, temperate climates for mangroves, algae and macroalgae in the form of seaweed is important to protect and increase the biodiversity in our coastal zones in more temperate climates, tropical climates for mangroves and temperate climates for seaweed. So we have to do this now. It's not a panacea because seaweed is 90% water. So yeah, but it does grow very fast. It's one of the fastest-growing things on Earth. We're harvesting as well, but, of course, a large portion of the seaweed sloughs off through the growth cycle. So you are contributing to coastal sedimentation and the coastal sort of, say, a temporary sink of carbon, as seaweed falls off and falls to the sediment. Now, it takes a long time to get that sediment into the deep ocean. And at the same time, it can be repurposed. There are other organisms in the sediment eating the seaweed. So as I said, it's not necessarily from a carbon ocean carbon disposal. Coastalseaweed cultivation doesn't deliver everything you need. However, by learning to grow seaweed on the coast, we can use technology to scale up, and that's when it becomes a really important factor in coastal ocean and carbon disposal. Now there's another element to it. While it grows, it has it filters the water so that it extracts excess nitrogen. So it can be used for for conservation. And for remediation purposes, if you're growing in an area that has high land runoff using fertilizers. Plus, we also know it moderates ocean acidification in areas that it does grow, not the least of which is important. It provides some habitat for organisms living in the coastal zone and, say in water depths, say less than thirty or forty meters. So it is refugia, which is really important for some things like salmon. And we hope to be quantifying just how important seaweed cultivation can be in terms of salmon, wild stock restoration. That's an ongoing area of research for us, and we need to quantify it. But back to the carbon perspective. And here's, I guess, the other GHG opportunity that seaweed presents. So let's say number one, while you're growing seaweed, you're sequestering a certain amount of carbon. If you harvest that seaweed, and it then gets fed to cows, for example, certain seaweed species will reduce or eliminate, to a large extent, the methane emissions that come from cow burps. And that represents about 4.8 to 5% of global GHGs. So when you feed cow feed seaweed to cow and very small amounts like less than a couple of percents, it acts in the cow to reduce or eliminate the organisms that feed in the cow’s rumen and produce the methane. Now methane is 28 times more powerful than co2 was a GHG. So it is the low-hanging fruit; it is possible to significantly reduce that if you could do it on a global scale, which means a lot of seaweed. But if you can do it on growth on a global scale, you have an opportunity very quickly to take 5% of GHGs (Green House Gasses) down, which is a really important number. Now, for seaweed to grow at that kind of scale; t's massive. But we're limited by the will of governments and industry to scale up and the money that it might take to scale up. So there are no impediments from a technical perspective to do this. It's the scale-up and the business operations and the keep the economics flowing that's going to be really important. There is, however, a third component of Agra fees which is important from a GHG perspective. The collateral benefit when you feed seaweed to cows is it improves certain seaweeds to cows. It improves the feed conversion ratio. So it's quite probable that when you use a supplement of seaweed, you can improve the feed conversion ratio, which is the ratio of the amount of feed you give a cow to its weight, for example, or as a dairy cow to the milk volume. So if you can feed a cow 30% less or 20% less, it means you use 20% less arable land to grow silage, and water to support that, which has a GHG benefit as well. So you get the triple bottom line, if you can make it work, and if you can make the economics work so that a farmer doesn't mind feeding their cows seaweed supplements.

Emily: Okay, it sounds like there are so many benefits and many potentials. And as I understand, you're kind of at the beginning of the journey. Cascadia is almost two years old. What kinds of projects do you have in the works right now?

Bill: Our main goal is to focus everyone's activity at scaling up because we need to grow more seaweed. And we need to make sure that the economics work we have to be profitable. Because if we can be profitable, our partners, coastal First Nations of British Columbia, they will gain value from the seaweed partnership with Cascadia. So there's a ton of potential provided we can be profitable. So right now, goal number one is to grow as much seaweed as we possibly can. And the biggest challenge is one of regulations. Seaweed is considered a vegetable by CFA, for example. So in terms of licensing for growth, “do we treat it the same as if we are raising an animal in the ocean?” I think not. So governments and the regulatory side need to innovate to Allow seaweed cultivation to happen at a rapid pace. This is, of course, important. The other thing is assuming we can grow as much as we can; we know that seaweed, as a food market, is growing by 8 and 14% per year has done for a decade and likely will continue for another decade. We have to feed 10 billion people before too long. And as the World Bank pointed out, it's important that ocean greens are a part of that answer. It's not just seaweed for food; it seaweed for feed, as I mentioned, and that's not just cows; it could be other livestock as well. Then you have the human health aspect. So we have about 630 species; less than handful globally have ever been cultivated. Less than perhaps two to three to four dozen of that 630 have ever been sampled for bioactive active components, and we know in the seaweeds that we are able to cultivate. We know significant amounts of nutraceutical properties and pharmaceutical properties can be developed, new drugs can be found. This is a world of bioprospecting as much as it is anything else. So we've yet to even scratch the surface on the value of seaweed as a nutraceutical on a pharmaceutical. You have other components of the seaweed of some species that are really ladened with sodium alginate, sodium alginate as an input to plastic, making it a very strong contender to try to transition from a hydrocarbon-based plastic to inorganic or bioplastic. These are all doable, and they’re done on a small scale. Is it possible to scale up, and can you make the economics work? That's really something that we'll have to the future will tell us. If we can get the right levels of support and the right levels of investment, we believe it will be a technical solution to make it more efficient. But, again, it comes back to how much say we can grow. And I'll put one more stick in the plan here, and that is growing seaweed on land. The largest producer of seaweed in North America is a company from the east coast of Canada that grows seaweed in tanks on land to support a market in Japan. So we can grow species that may be high protein species or niche market that provides some value to someone. Maybe it's a nutraceutical or a pharmaceutical that doesn't need 100,000 tonnes a year. Perhaps it needs hundreds of tonnes that can be efficiently grown on land. The economics work for that. We just need to develop the right cultivars and strains to do this effectively when we're taking them out of the water or the ocean into a tank-based facility. 

Emily: Okay, wow, it sounds like there's so much there. Tell me about Seaweed Days, the first International Seaweed Day starting on Monday.

Bill: Our team of marketing experts, who are the most excellent, enthusiastic folks that just love to tell the story of seaweed, decided that it was important that we continue on this road on the journey of the seaweed journey. One of the things perhaps lacking was an ability for a vast, wide public knowledge of seaweed and all its benefits and, in particular, the food brand. So the question came up well, “how do we deliver that, and how do we do more of a massive outreach?” And you know, social media is wonderful. But there are festivals every day. Particularly in the new virtual world, folks are getting used to being able to do it online, making the individual way more accessible to what the globe has to offer without getting on an airplane and physically going there. So we decided we would do Seaweed Days. Originally, the thought was that we would do it quite locally, and say as provide chefs with the product that they could, in turn, cook or bake with seaweed, or have fresh seaweed salads. The local population could go into these restaurants and taste and just sense the wonder of this new nutritious food has to offer. So now, of course, we're in COVID still, and it's really important to do things virtually, so the moment the virtual arena opened up to us, we had a broader reach. And we just had such overwhelming support from our sponsors and from other folks interested in telling their seaweed story around the globe that we thought it would be an excellent platform, so we jumped in with both feet into the water. And next week is the seaweed festival, and we've been contacted by other folks more traditional seaweed festival on the ground. One thing that's really unique that we've discovered about the seaweed industry is that it's so collaborative. Because of the massive job that we have to do as an industry, as regulators, as sector developers, at sector development people, we have a massive job to provide seaweed to the folks that are going to want to eat it and work with it and use it as an industrial tool in our organic biosphere of tools. It will continue to grow. And that's why we believe like we're almost sold out. I think we've had to add the free registration, which you can find that  We've had to add spaces in our virtual free events because the response has been excellent. So your listeners should join and share in a global view. We’ll have folks from all over the world listening to or watching chefs virtually prepare meals. So it's a wonderful event, and it will just really serve to satisfy the smallest of the insatiable appetite that we see as see we going forward.

Emily: What do you hope that the future of the seaweed industry on Vancouver Island looks like?

Bill: In our wildest dreams, our partners and we would have firms up and down the island, which would allow farmers to go back to their hometowns go back to their home villages, and work in climate positive, meaningful jobs, where they are creating food, growing food for people to eat, and they do it from their own home in their own communities or where they traditionally have lived. If we could put people back into there and allow them to work. We believe everyone would be happier, and we would see coastal revitalization. Because traditionally, that's where folk folks lived and worked. In our wireless of dreams, the industry gets big. And they see we, the First Nations, in particular, our partners become wonderfully versed in how to grow seaweed and market seaweed. And eventually, if it could be a First Nations-led industry as a model for the world. In our wildest dreams. That's what it would look like into the future.

Emily: It sounds like there's quite a lot of potential there with everything that you mentioned. Is there anything else you think listeners should know in the context of this interview?

Bill: There's a lot more work on the ground to be done. And it demands thinking from all quarters. So the industry is small, but it has large potential. And we encourage everybody, to at the very least, as soon as the North American product stream is ready for seaweed to eat seaweed, enjoy the nutritional benefits and the taste benefits and ultimately help us deliver a sector that's good for the planet. And it's good for the people living in the coastal zones of British Columbia and out east and eventually in the north. So, join in the fun of seaweed.

Emily: That’s great. I should ask, what’s your favourite way to eat seaweed? 

Bill: Fresh right out of the water. It's not slimy, and it’s not salty. And I can tell you it tastes beautifully green. 

Emily: I’m pretty partial to seaweed myself. Bill, thank you so much for joining us on the show. I really appreciate it. 

Bill: You’re more than welcome. Ask me back anytime. 

Jackie: Thank you so much for spending some of your Thursday with us today. If you enjoyed the podcast please feel free to share so all your friends can find it as well. And rate review and subscribe so that you don't miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily podcast. We'll talk to you tomorrow.