Here's how aquafarming could give boost to CA seafood market, kelp population

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Friday, October 20, 2023
Here's how aquafarming could boost CA seafood market
A commercial operation known as Monterey Bay Seaweeds is one of the largest producing farms of its kind and leads a new type of sustainable farming.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's a delivery day at San Francisco seafood restaurant Aphotic. Chef Peter Hemsley includes locally supplied seaweed in a Michelin-rated menu, built on responsibly sourced ingredients.

"When we were confronted with what we know about humanity and how we treat the world, it was a best practice, what is the best we can do now," Hemsley said.

But the journey to the restaurant table actually begins several hours south of San Francisco in the coastal town of Moss Landing.

"There's three types of seaweeds: there's reds, there's greens and there's browns," said San Jose State professor and kelp biologist Michael Graham, Ph.D., showing off samples as the result of decades of marine science.

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The commercial operation is known as Monterey Bay Seaweeds, one of the largest producing seaweed farms of its kind in the country.

"And so it's a relatively simple system, you know. You pump water in offshore, you run it through some tanks, you use natural sunlight, and you perpetuate seaweed to the point where it oversupplies itself, and we're able to harvest it and put it into the commercial market," said Graham.

The aqua farm, which sits just several hundred yards from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory is a joint venture with San Jose State. The tanks, which provide a bubbling, saltwater home, are Graham's own design. But he says the key is their ability to draw in the critical ocean water through an existing pipeline. A small white buoy marks the intake point offshore. The pipe was originally built for an industrial plant many years ago, and later used for research. It's a legacy structure that would have been difficult, if not impossible to permit in recent decades.

"And you know, the state of California, and rightly so, has a pretty rigid regulatory when new things go in the water. And so, once we start getting those applications through and getting some pipes in and locations that aren't going to do environmental damage, you're going to start seeing these types of systems show up. And I think what you're going to find then is that the environmental benefit of the farm clearly outweighs any environmental negatives," Graham said.

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And there is growing support on several fronts. A number of marine labs in Northern California are growing specimens to help repopulate offshore kelp forests under threat from environmental pressures.

North Bay Representative Jared Huffman has also introduced legislation to streamline commercial regulation, arguing that an expanded kelp farming industry would have both economic and environmental benefits for California.

"And there are all sorts of really interesting uses for kelp. People may think of it as something that you know, maybe you see in a sushi dish, and that's it. There's actually all kinds of interesting products and applications," Huffman said.

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Back in Moss Landing, Michael Graham is already planning a major expansion at a second location with an existing seawater pipeline in place. Potentially making kelp, seaweed and other farmed products available to a broader market.

"And at that point, the economies of scale come into play. And we're going to start being able to make seaweed and abalone and other shellfish at a price point in which normal consumers -- and what I mean by normal consumers, is people who in their normal lives and eating -- would be able to afford, including these into their diet," he said.

It is an agricultural revolution in the making along the California coast.

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