Something Smells Fishy: Seaweed & Sustainability

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released this November, highlights the severe threats posed by climate change to the earth’s natural systems and human societies. One of the notable concerns outlined in the Assessment was the implication of climate change on the US economy. The report states, “With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century.” Specifically, rising temperatures, extreme weather, and pests and diseases put agricultural yields at risk, and increasingly, acidic and warm oceans are decreasing the productivity of fisheries. In addition, it has been estimated that 90% of the world’s fisheries have been depleted by overfishing. Recently, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations has made headlines by suing oil companies for the losses posed to their business because of climate change. Higher temperatures have increased the frequency of toxic algal blooms that render Dungeness crabs inedible, and thus unsellable.

One US industry is seeking to work around and even combat these challenges to agriculture and aquaculture: seaweed. Although seaweed was eaten in the early American colonies and is common in Asia, such as in Japanese and Korean food, it is currently not a popular choice in the United States, likely because of cultural norms and dislike for its texture and flavor. However, the growing popularity of kale has highlighted Americans’ increasing desire for healthy food and sustainable non-meat options.

Barton Seaver of the Harvard School of Public Health declared that “kelp is the new kale”: rich in protein and nutrients, seaweed could fit the bill perfectly. Unlike land crops, which need to be watered (using up fresh water resources) and fertilized (causing harmful effects from runoff), kelp will grow quickly on its own. The majority of all carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, and through photosynthesis, kelp removes carbon from the water. Although this effect is largely counteracted when the kelp is consumed by humans, releasing the stored carbon back into the ocean-atmosphere system, kelp can act as a carbon sink. While individual kelp farms cannot remedy global carbon emissions or ocean acidification, they can still improve local water quality in coastal areas and promote healthy ecosystems.

A study by Grand View Research predicted that the global seaweed market will grow to 22.13 billion dollars by 2024, more than doubling from 2015. Companies such as Ocean Approved in Maine are expanding kelp farming efforts, and as the industry grows in the United States, more diverse products, such as kelp chips or algae wafers, are catering to a wider array of taste buds. Currently, 80% of seaweed is grown for human consumption, but it is also being investigated for use as a biofuel that would be high in energy but low in detrimental environmental effects. Not only are people’s perspectives on seaweed changing, but also the ways it is consumed are expanding and evolving. Consider giving seaweed a try the next time you step into a grocery store!