Op-ed: How the seaweed industry could grow in Norway
Emily Payne is head of product and content at Bergen, Norway-based aquaculture analytics company Manolin. The company launched in 2018 as a graduate of the HATCH aquaculture accelerator. It offers risk forecasting and centralized data archives, as well as personalized treatment recommendations to help aquaculture farmers de-risk, minimize loss, and lessen environmental impact.
Salmon farmers work with uncertainty every day. From daily threats of disease and severe weather events, to sudden mass mortalities like that of the algal bloom of 2019, to unexpected supply chain and personnel challenges due to global events like coronavirus in 2020, adapting is what salmon farmers do best.
But another rising industry is showing potential to help increase salmon farms’ resilience and profitability while restoring local ecosystems and ocean health: seaweed farming.
Seaweed grows well in the natural ecology of the Norwegian coast. Farmed on floating cultivation lines, it has a symbiotic relationship within the fjord: the seaweed feeds on nutrients like nitrogen from nearby fish farms, converting it to growth while pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps reduce local ocean acidification.
For farmers, growing seaweed requires no chemicals, fertilizers, antibiotics, or freshwater. Studies are showing it even improves water quality. And by providing microhabitats and diversity to the waters, seaweed farms attract more wild fish and other creatures to the area.
Today, global macroalgae production has surpassed 30 million tons per year, but most come from Asia. Europe contributes less than one percent of this, primarily from harvesting wild stocks.
In Norway, “right now a lot of the people that are farming seaweed are actually salmon producers,” Mari Vold Bjordal, aquaculture advisor at The Bellona Foundation, said. Others looking to farm seaweed “often get help from local fish farmers, because they have the competence and equipment.”
The Bellona Foundation partners with Lerøy on the Ocean Forest, a research and development company that works to find economically sustainable ways of solving aquaculture's environmental challenges. They’re now the largest producer of seaweed in the country.
In Florø, producers Osland Havbruk, Engesund Fiskeoppdrett, and Sulefisk AS together founded Tarelaks. The collaboration grows kelp in the vicinity of fish farms with a system they call Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture, and they’re continually researching its benefits. And Kvarøy Arctic Salmon partners with SJY Seaweed to produce seaweed as an alternative, vegan seafood option.
Seaweed can be sold to a wide range of markets, especially when broken down into its different components. Alginate, for example, derived from brown algae (phaeophyta), is used as a thickening agent in water-based products such as ranch dressing, hand creams, and even heartburn medicine. Seaweed’s antibacterial properties are also touted for clearing and calming skin: popular UK-based skincare and cosmetics company The Body Shop recently unveiled a seaweed collection of products. Other thickening, binding, and gelling agents from seaweed include carrageenan and agar, with applications ranging from pharmaceuticals to food preservation.
This year, most of the seaweed produced at Ocean Forest went to animal feed. For cattle, it’s fermented and used as a feed supplement to reduce the animals’ methane emissions. Pigs, too, have better gut health if they eat more seaweed, so farmers don’t need to use as many antibiotics.
“That’s a breakthrough right now. I think animal feed will be the next step to a bigger market for seaweed,” Vold Bjordal said.
But the industry lacks the tools for harvesting and processing seaweed at scale. While some companies like Arctic Seaweed AS are already at work on this in Norway, it’s still very expensive for companies to put their own systems in place. In Asia, cheap labor costs allow for those nearly 32 million tonnes of seaweed production each year, but in Northern Europe, it would be impossible for companies to make enough money to produce at the same capacity. Better technology is needed.
According to Vold Bjordal, the key to overcoming these challenges could come from salmon producers themselves – a partnership that would benefit both parties.
“It is very expensive to build seaweed ships, harvesting boats, or all of these different things that you need to grow seaweed,” Vold Bjordal said. “It’s also very expensive to have a seaweed farm in the ocean. So when it comes to having the knowledge of how to farm the ocean and the right people and equipment in place, the salmon industry needs to be involved. When the market picks up – I’m saying when, not if – it is a potential new entry that salmon farmers can make money out of. Having seaweed to harvest and sell gives salmon producers another leg to stand on.”
Mass mortality events like the 2019 algal bloom have the potential to suddenly kill off entire generations of salmon, putting the industry and farmers’ livelihoods at risk. But seaweed isn’t impacted by algal blooms, sea lice, or certain changes in weather, and by boosting the overall health of the Norwegian coast, seaweed may even help to prevent issues that would impact salmon. This would, potentially, give farmers another source of income when trouble hits.
European consumers are slowly opening to seaweed. “The food market is where you will get the highest price for seaweed,” Mari says, “but demand is still limited. We are seeing more and more people getting used to the idea of eating seaweed, though.”
With increased consumer interest in wellness and health food industry products like meat substitutes, this is projected to grow.
This same consumer interest has increased focus on sustainability initiatives across the food industry. By taking up excess nutrients in the water, extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and attracting wild fish populations, seaweed makes a strong environmental case for businesses.
As The Nature Conservancy points out, "most of the environmental challenges for aquaculture – habitat impact, over-reliance on wild forage fish for feed, disease, and genetic mingling of farmed and wild stocks – are also business challenges.”
Dutch seaweed starter company Hortimare, which is now producing seedlings specifically adapted to local conditions for Norwegian farmers, said on a recent Euronews Ocean episode that it expects Europe’s seaweed production to increase tenfold in the near future. In Norway, this could build on what Norwegian salmon already does for the country: provide more jobs and strengthen local economies.
“It’s a very good combination. With the research community here in Norway, there’s huge potential,” Vold Bjordal said.
The Norwegian salmon industry has always been quick to rise to its challenges and address problems at hand – and today, better managing risk is at the top of producers’ minds. With no cost of inputs and minimal labor to maintain, bringing seaweed production into salmon businesses’ portfolios could boost resiliency, environmental sustainability, and profitability. It’s a win-win-win, if producers have the upfront investment.
“Fifty years ago in Norway, salmon was experimentally produced with homemade nets and feed, and the industry grew from there,” Vold Bjordal said. “We can do heaps of research and development, but that takes a lot of time. The salmon industry, they want to do things now. The combination of research, development, and this established seafood industry will be the key to develop the seaweed industry in Norway.”
High-tech innovations are growing in the aquaculture space, from Manolin’s data-driven risk forecasting software to Salmon Evolution’s land-based net-pen alternatives. Coupling this with low-tech solutions like introducing low-trophic aquaculture species could be a powerful tool to benefit both industries – scaling seaweed, reducing salmon’s environmental impact, and boosting profitability for both.
Photo courtesy of The Bellona Foundation