Alaska’s newest marine industry is a twist on an ancient tradition.
Seaweed, for centuries a staple in the diet of Indigenous peoples of Alaska’s coastal regions, has emerged as a promising consumer product in a state more famous for its huge commercial fish harvests.
A few entrepreneurs have found lucrative markets, and state officials are hoping their successes can be replicated.
Among them are Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz, owners of Barnacle Foods, now known regionally for their kelp salsa sold to locals and tourists from their Juneau shop – located conveniently near the site where huge cruise ships dock in summer. They got into the business almost accidentally.
The pair grew up in southeast Alaska, eating the fish they caught – and seaweed in various forms. During fishing trips, they got into the habit of bringing back coolers of bull kelp to pickle or put into salsa for family and friends. They eventually decided to make extra to sell.
“We were really excited to share kelp salsa with people,” Kern said. When it is in a familiar form like salsa, consumers get over their reluctance and are willing to try something exotic, he added.
By 2016, they had found a successful formula.
“We sold them very quickly and we knew we had to make more,” Kern said. Last year, they increased production 10-fold and started sending products wholesale to about 20 stores around the state.
Barnacle Foods now sells various types of salsa, pickles and seaweed-based spice mix. “It’s an amazingly versatile ingredient,” Kern said. “You’re seeing more seaweed products arrive every day.”
Their business got a personal shout-out from Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who stars in an online video about his visit to the Juneau store. In 2016, Walker signed an executive order to create a mariculture task force that is promoting seafood farming along with the expansion of the existing shellfish-farming industry.
The Alaska seaweed business is still small. Barnacle Foods’ sales are limited because the kelp used is wild. Volumes can be bigger for entrepreneurs who grow their own seaweed, but currently there are only about 10 companies with or seeking cultivation permits, according to state officials.
The best known might be Blue Evolution, which sells pasta and sauces made with seaweed and operates an onshore seaweed hatchery in Baja California in Mexico. The company says its operation in Kodiak, Alaska, is the largest offshore seaweed hatchery in North America and the source of seeded lines – juvenile plants attached to ropes – used at sites along the Pacific coast.
U.S. consumers are already interested in seaweed, but most of the products available are imported from China and Korea, Blue Evolution spokeswoman Cameron McCosh said in an email, while Blue Evolution’s products provide a more local ocean-to-table option. “Customers are increasingly interested in eating with sustainability in mind as well, something we are truly proud of,” she said. “And the nutrition in seaweed is hard to beat.”
Claims of seaweed’s nutritional qualities are backed up, in part, by research by North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, which shows Alaska seaweed contains anti-inflammatory qualities that could help combat diabetes and obesity.
State officials have some ideas for expanding the nascent seaweed market.
The University of Alaska’s SeaGrant program, which distributes a free instructional guide about seaweed farming, last fall secured $418,000 from the federal SeaGrant program to improve methods of growing and harvesting sugar kelp.
The state legislature is also working on a bill that passed the House last year and is now awaiting final action in the Senate that would give seafood farmers access to a revolving loan fund now used by operators of fish hatcheries.
There are obstacles. Among them: a lack of knowledge about seaweed’s role in the ecosystem within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the agency that oversees harvests.
“The issue with harvests is that Fish and Game doesn’t know enough about the biology of the seaweed to manage it,” said Mike Stekoll, a University of Alaska biochemist who is lead researcher on the nationally funded project.
There are also legitimate concerns about preserving kelp beds, for example, to support fish populations, Stekoll said.
Rural residents who engage in subsistence harvests do not need Fish and Game permits to do so, but there can be closures imposed, as kelp is important to spawning herring and other fish. Non-subsistence harvesters – urban residents collecting kelp for their own tables as well as the new seaweed entrepreneurs – do need permits.
One worry is the potential for commercial harvests to interfere with supplies of wild foods important to Indigenous traditions. That is where seaweed farming comes in, said Gary Freitag, a SeaGrant marine advisory program agent based in Ketchikan and author of the organization’s guide to Alaska cultivation.
Seaweed farmers generally grow sugar kelp, not the black seaweed and other varieties that are collected in traditional subsistence harvests, according to Freitag and Stekoll.
While collecting wild seaweeds require a lot of travel over the water – work generally done in conjunction with summer fish harvests – cultivated plants can be conveniently located, Freitag said. Farmed seaweed is grown on ropes and buoys away from natural marine-plant sites and harvested in the spring before most commercial fishing starts. This avoids conflicts with the traditional collections of wild seaweed, he noted.
“The wild’s not going to be messed with,” Freitag said. “I’d be the first to get upset about that if it interfered with subsistence harvesting.”
Native organizations, once leery of commercial seaweed business, are now interested in some commercialization – as long as the seaweed that is harvested for traditional purposes is protected.
A few individuals are doing their own small-scale sales.
Mike and Edna Jackson from the southeastern Alaska village of Kake occasionally sell bags of dried seaweed along with the artwork they show at festivals and conventions. Edna Jackson is well known for the sculptures she makes from natural materials, some of which are displayed in museums. The seaweed offered for sale is just a side product, her husband said at last year’s Alaska Federation of Natives meeting in Anchorage.
They sell small quantities of different types of seaweed they eat themselves. “We personally pick it, and what we have we share,” Mike Jackson said. They do not, however, share information about their harvest sites.