Seaweed Economics 101: Boom and Bust in the North Atlantic
Coastal communities have watched the economic pendulum—and their futures—swing wildly when it comes to relying on seaweed as an industry. Is there a better way?
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On a bright day in June, Jon Funderud sits in a small open office on the edge of Trondheim Fjord on Norway’s central coast. Sunlight floods in through large windows on two sides, and the view is spectacular—sparkling blue water with the historic port of Trondheim in the distance. After six weeks in northern Europe, I can count the sunny days on the fingers of one hand, so I’m enjoying this burst of spring.
Funderud is less pleased. Wind whistles past the building, headquarters for Seaweed Energy Solutions (SES), and those sparkles on the water are substantial waves. A cold stormy winter has merged seamlessly into a cold stormy spring, and the forecast calls for more of the same. Funderud has kelp to harvest. The weather, however, is not cooperating.
A lanky 33-year-old in jeans and a casual shirt, Funderud has been with SES since 2010 and is currently its business development manager. The company was founded in 2006 with the goal of turning North Atlantic seaweed into bioenergy. Back then, both the price of oil and concern about climate change were rising in Europe, and governments and corporations were ploughing money into green energy research, especially using home-grown sources.
In Norway, you can’t get much more homegrown than seaweed. The country’s 25,000 kilometers of coastline face the North Atlantic, which is awash in seaweed. Winter storms dislodge forests of kelp and push their snake-like stipes ashore, stranding them in huge mounds. Sea lettuce sprawls limply across the rocks and dries to crispness in the sun. Rockweed and bladderwrack grow in the intertidal zone, flopping wetly on shelves and skerries when the tide goes out.
It’s a bounty for sure.
And for thousands of years, coastal people of the North Atlantic have fertilized their fields, fed their animals, and—mostly when times were tough—eaten seaweed. Economically, however, their seaweed story is relatively new. It’s a tale of boom and bust, of hope and despair. Funderud, and others, are trying to edit out the bust and despair by overcoming a few hurdles, principally cost and reliability of supply. Solve those problems and seaweed could become an economic workhorse for coastal communities looking for the glimmer of a sustainable boom.
Traditionally, North Atlantic coastal communities have relied on wild seaweed, accepting its peripatetic existence—this marine bounty is seasonal, which limits its quantity. A modern, industrial-scale development demands a steady, reliable supply, and the key to that is cultivation. That’s what SES is trying to do. But it’s tricky.
Kelp thrives on sunlight. The embryos develop in late fall and winter, but growth takes off spectacularly in the spring when long hours of daylight return to the North Atlantic. Sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), the main species Funderud is working with, can grow more than four meters in a single season. By the end of spring, growth tapers off and it’s harvest time. At the moment, SES’s first pilot-scale crop lingers in the fjord—almost-constant storms have made harvesting too dangerous.
“We’ve experienced some challenges with the weather, but that’s part of the testing,” says Funderud a bit glumly.
He cheers up when we head down a narrow hall to the company’s small lab. Funderud is a marine biologist, and the lab is his passion. It looks like nothing more than a couple of cramped storage rooms—which might have been the case when Shell Oil owned the building. In the first room, white plastic bins contain mini-forests of juvenile kelp plants bathed in bubbling seawater. This is the experimental crop, the plants SES monitors closely to see what conditions affect their growth.
In another small room, lit only by a dim red light, Funderud points proudly at a few narrow shelves holding glass lab flasks half-filled with water. That, he says, is next year’s crop of sugar kelp. The deceptively clear water is full of microscopic kelp embryos floating in suspended animation. By fall, they’ll be growing in the ocean, and by the following May ready for harvest.
But harvest for what?
As little as three years ago, the answer was simple—energy. A seaweed-as-biofuel boom loomed on the North Atlantic horizon. Business pages trumpeted seaweed as the fossil-free energy source of the future, since it doesn’t steal land and resources from food crops. Statoil, the giant Norwegian energy corporation, signed an agreement with SES to develop ways to grow seaweed for energy. But the price of oil plummeted and took the price of biofuel with it. Now, after all the hoopla, Statoil has no seaweed projects. No one I spoke to—in Norway, Scotland, Iceland, or Canada—is talking about bioenergy as the driver for the seaweed business. And biofuel is no longer SES’s first market goal.
Outside the lab, Funderud waves a greeting to two men hefting beer kegs at the microbrewery housed in another part of the old Shell Oil complex. Last year, the brewery made a special batch of seaweed beer, using SES’s seaweed. “It was pretty good,” says Funderud. In Norway, a liter of beer can sell for five times the price of a liter of gasoline. It’s booze—not biofuel—and other high-value products (nutriceutical and chemical) that will pay for SES’s research.
Price is one side of the seaweed farming equation. Cost is the other. In Asia, seaweed has been farmed for millennia on a grand scale, made possible through huge amounts of manual labor. “We thought it’s possible to do this in a more clever way, which makes it possible in Europe where the labor cost is higher,” Funderud says.
SES’s more clever way is its patented “seaweed carrier”—a growth platform that makes harvesting less labor-intensive and allows the company to expand cultivation territory by farming further offshore, where seas are rougher and in less demand from other users. The seaweed grows on sheets of material that float upright in the ocean’s sunlit zone, anchored by a single cable to the ocean floor. SES has been experimenting with the seaweed propagation for five years. This year’s crop will be proof of concept—once the weather cooperates.
Despite the delays, Funderud is optimistic. Good times will come for the North Atlantic seaweed industry, eventually: “Getting the cultivation at a low cost is kind of a bottleneck.”
And it’s choked the North Atlantic seaweed economies for a long time.
The people of the North Atlantic shores could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve seen this sort of thing before. For three centuries, seaweed booms have rolled through local economies like economic tsunamis. And like tsunamis, they’ve left wreckage behind.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, some coastal economies relied heavily on kelp—not the seaweed itself, but a potassium-rich ash made by the slow burning of beach-cast seaweed and prized by manufacturers of pottery, glass, soap, and textiles. Suddenly, small coastal communities all around the North Atlantic were part of the Industrial Revolution. When the Napoleonic Wars cut British factories off from continental kelp suppliers, they turned to the seaweed-rich islands of Scotland. Island economies went into overdrive, and the lairds, who owned the land, made fortunes.
The kelp business made—and broke—North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Islands. It’s a six-kilometer-long scrap of low-lying land with less good farmland than one average North American farm, and no sheltered harbor. When I flew into North Ronaldsay, the small plane was met by close to five percent of the island’s population: brothers Tommy and Billy Muir. Sturdy men in late middle age, they serve as ground crew for the twice-daily flights. Between flights, Tommy drives the island’s only taxi and Billy leads tours of its historic lighthouse. On an island with a population of 56 and falling, everyone pulls double duty.
It wasn’t always like this.
As I walk along the shoreline, migrating seabirds pick through heaps of storm-cast seaweed, disturbed only by the local sheep that have developed a taste for it. North Ronaldsay has lots of the stuff. At the peak of the kelp boom in the last half of the 19th century, more than 10 times as many people lived on the island, supported by the cash economy of the kelp trade. But the war ended, and British factories turned to cheaper continental kelp. All that remains are a few shallow, circular depressions—abandoned burning pits. When the kelp money left North Ronaldsay, so did whole families. Like other Scots, some probably washed up on the far side of the ocean in Atlantic Canada. If so, they were on the spot for another North Atlantic seaweed tsunami—the Irish moss boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), which grows on rocky shores all around the North Atlantic, is 40 percent carrageenan, a water-soluble gum used as a thickener or stabilizer in processed foods. Carrageenan keeps the cocoa suspended in your chocolate milk, makes your ice cream creamy, stops the fruit from settling out of your yogurt, and clarifies your beer. Between 1950 and 1970, Canada was the world’s leading supplier of carrageenan. In the hard-scrabble fishing towns of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, gathering and selling Irish moss filled a revenue gap.
For my Nova-Scotia-born husband, Alan Daley, Irish moss is part of his memories of growing up in the small lobster-fishing town of Clark’s Harbour. The youngest of four children of a fisheries officer, Alan remembers trailing after his sisters, Anne and Marg, as they walked up the road to collect old hemp sacks from the local moss buyer. “Then we’d go across the road to Norris’s Crick,” he says, when I prod for more information. “A rock ledge went out from the shore, and we walked on the ledge at low water and picked Irish moss by hand.” Their big brother, Ken, who was raking moss from a small boat, had firm instructions to stay within shouting distance.
Despite its local name, Norris’s Crick is actually a narrow, rocky inlet just a couple of hundred meters from the Daley family’s small wooden house. The waters of the North Atlantic roll in and out with the tides, making it perfect habitat for Irish moss. Alan and his sisters collected as much wet seaweed as they could carry (not much when you’re only seven), hauled it home, and spread it on the roadside gravel to dry.
By the late 1960s, teenaged Alan had inherited Ken’s small boat and was harvesting Irish moss with a long-handled rake that reached six meters below the water’s surface. Over the course of a week, working one tide a day, he earned more than twice as much as the local boat factory paid for a six-day week. For Alan, it was a good summer job, but for local fishermen it was an important part of their annual income.
“I saw dozens of people bringing moss in, and that was just the people who were leaving from the same wharf I was,” he says. Most of them were full-time fishermen supplementing an income that depended mainly on the winter-through-spring lobster season. Mossing paid better than the alternative—hand-lining for such fish as cod, haddock, and hake.
Canada’s world domination of the carrageenan supply ended in the mid-1970s. Farmed seaweed from Asia, with its lower labor costs, was a cheaper and more reliable source. Atlantic Canada’s Irish moss tsunami receded, leaving behind the usual wreckage. At the peak of the boom, some lobster fishermen had turned full-time mossers, encouraged by governments concerned about over-fishing. Now they were stranded with a market too small to sustain them and too little capital to return to fishing. In Prince Edward Island alone, 100 households had relied on Irish moss. Back in Clark’s Harbour, a few people still harvest Irish moss, but it’s hard work for not much money, not the small-town bonanza of Alan’s childhood.
The neighboring province of New Brunswick was also hit hard by the Irish moss tsunami. Now it’s home base for researcher Thierry Chopin, who has seen the boom-and-bust seaweed cycle from both sides of the North Atlantic and has a plan to break the cycle.
“Can you tell I’m French?” Chopin asks when I phone him after returning from Europe. I can. His words carry the distinctive sounds of European French. He grew up in Brittany, he tells me. Once—like North Ronaldsay—its kelp helped feed the Industrial Revolution, but when French manufacturers turned to cheaper potassium salts from German mines, they left Brittany’s kelp-burners high and dry.
Like Jon Funderud in Norway, Chopin is convinced there’s a rosy economic future for cultivated seaweed. He wants to incorporate seaweed into a complex aquaculture system that goes a giant step beyond fish farming. Ten years ago, Chopin coined the term “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture” (IMTA) to describe his vision. The idea is to take advantage of the components, or trophic levels, of the ocean’s natural food webs to build a closed system. Fish farms produce nutrients from feces and wasted food. Seaweeds use those nutrients for growth. Invertebrates and juvenile fish find food and shelter in the seaweed. The seaweed becomes food for the farmed fish, closing the circle.
At each stage of the circle, something can be hived off for human use: a salmon dinner, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, animal feed—even beer ingredients. With multiple products, the system is far more stable than a single-product industry. Chopin has been working with a New Brunswick-based aquaculture company on a project, and several countries have IMTA projects on the go, including Norway.
In a modern lab-and-office building on Trondheim’s industrial waterfront, Aleksander Handå, research manager for SINTEF, a fisheries and aquaculture research institute, works on a version of an IMTA. Tall and 30-ish with close-cropped bright-blond hair, Handå manages to make a checked shirt and navy pullover look as formal as a business suit. We talk seaweed in a windowless meeting room, while outside yet another spring storm blows spatters of rain across the busy harbor.
Handå says he knows of almost a dozen European IMTA projects, a couple of them in Norway. Most of the European projects are linked with fish farms, which are wearing out their local welcome because of waste problems. But if IMTA is going to work, Handå says, it has to make money from more than the fish.
One promising market for seaweed is nutritional supplements—nutriceuticals, in industry-speak. Local boutique businesses have popped up to serve that market, but the big boys have their eyes on it, too. Handå, Funderud, and Chopin all talk about developing biorefineries, where seaweeds would be processed for multiple uses, starting with products like nutriceuticals.
North Atlantic seaweed producers also look enviously at Asia where seaweed is an everyday food. Farmed seaweed is big business there, mainly for human consumption. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently reported that world aquaculture production of aquatic algae in 2012 totaled 23.8 million tonnes, for a value of US $6.4-billion. Production was overwhelmingly dominated by Asia, with China and Indonesia supplying 81.4 percent of the total.
IMTA evangelist Thierry Chopin wants a piece of that action for North Atlantic seaweed: “In the western world, the problem we have—even with a little help from the sushi bar—is that people are reluctant to eat seaweed.”
The Western world, however, happily feeds it to their animals.
When the first settlers sailed from Norway to Iceland over a thousand years ago, they spent weeks at sea, risking their lives in an open boat. Today, an airplane whisks me comfortably from Trondheim to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, in an hour and a half. The North Atlantic is blue and bright in the sun today, and the wind has finally dropped. Maybe spring will arrive after all.
I’m off to visit Thorverk, Iceland’s only industrial seaweed producer. On the drive north from Reykjavik, I try to keep my eyes on the road and off the magnificent seascape. The road skirts the ocean, climbs a mountain pass, then narrows alarmingly above a wide fjord dotted with seaweed-laden islands and skerries. After three hours, the tiny village of Reykhólar, home of Thorverk, slides into view.
Thorverk sells certified organic animal feed made from wild seaweed to markets in Europe and North America. But they’d like to extend both their reach and the range of their products.
A road threads through the village to the company’s drying plant, perched on the edge of the fjord. The shallow ditch beside the road is steaming gently, rather startling evidence of the geothermal water that heats the plant’s seaweed dryer. Since 1986, Thorverk has been harvesting, drying, and exporting wild rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) to feed farm animals, from chickens to cattle.
Plant foreman Thorgeir Samuelsson, a stocky bearded man in neon-yellow and black coveralls, has been with the company from the beginning. He leads me through the plant to a concrete compound piled high with freshly cut rockweed. From April to October the plant never stops, he says, processing 110 tonnes of seaweed every 24 hours.
“We only harvest what we can sell,” says Samuelsson, “and we sell everything.”
The cold, stormy spring has hit Iceland, too, keeping the harvesters home some days, but Samuelsson expects to meet his production goal. That matters. Thorverk is the biggest employer in town, though since they rely on wild seaweed the work is mostly seasonal. In winter, the company harvests a small amount of wild kelp (Laminaria digitata)—it’s expensive to dry and needs a high-paying market. Samuelsson says convincing Europeans to eat seaweed, and lots of it, would be the perfect solution: “I think it is a marvelous product.”
Everyone, it seems, has big plans for seaweed. But there’s a problem. The North Atlantic’s vast quantities of wild seaweed—like the rockweed that fills Thorverk’s dryer—are mostly already spoken for.
Consider beach seaweed. In 2010, marine researcher Kyla Orr recorded an amazing 50,000 invertebrates per square meter of seaweed-covered beach on two Scottish islands. Her colleague, ecologist Tom Wilding of the Scottish Marine Institute, says in an email interview that migrating shorebirds depend heavily on that teeming life. What the birds don’t get washes back into the ocean, feeding juvenile fish and crustaceans.
Seaweed below the tideline is just as important. Norwegian researcher Hartvig Christie, interviewed by email from his Oslo office, says kelp forests support more than 40 species of smaller seaweeds and a hundred species of small snails, crustaceans, and other tiny animals—up to 100,000 individuals per square meter. Crabs, lobsters, and juvenile fish feed and hide in the kelp; large fish and seabirds feed there. And, of course, all that beach kelp comes from the kelp forests.
Norway currently harvests 150,000 tonnes of wild kelp a year, using trawlers that drag three-meter-long iron sledges with rake-like projections through the kelp beds. Reducing the wild harvest isn’t in the cards. In fact, Norwegian companies want to increase it. Christie says seaweeds regenerate relatively quickly, but there are impacts: “By harvesting kelps and perennial seaweeds you remove the foundation species in a rich ecosystem.”
Both scientists agree that cultivated seaweed might be the answer, but—like all researchers—they want more information. Wild or cultivated, Wilding says, scale is an issue. Impacts are a matter of scale, and major industrial purposes such as bioenergy might simply be the wrong scale.
Back in Norway, a couple of months have passed since I sat with Jon Funderud in the SES office overlooking Trondheim Fjord. A lot has happened. Funderud is now chief executive officer of Seaweed Energy Solutions. And he finally managed to harvest his seaweed—100 tonnes of it from a 300-by-300-meter patch of ocean (about the size of 72 Olympic-sized pools).
Funderud estimates that annual production of 1,000 tonnes sold for high-value products would be profitable. Biofuel production would require a harvest at least 10 to 100 times bigger, and Funderud doesn’t see that happening any time soon. But maybe small—and sustainable, year after year—is the way to go in the North Atlantic.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the size of the SES harvest patch as 300 square meters.