THE EFFORTS TO restore Puget Sound bull kelp, described in this week’s cover story, are motivated by the algae’s profound importance to marine ecosystems. But there’s also a Gold Rush mentality around kelp and other seaweeds these days.
Algae is touted as a source of everything from biofuel to hair dye, as well as an all-purpose tool to fight global warming by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and oceans. And, if you believe the hype, the dietary prospects are unlimited, from animal feed to the next superfood for humans.
Seaweed has been used for food, fertilizer and seasoning for centuries. In his book “Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound,” author David B. Williams describes how the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest crafted bull kelp stipes into fishing line, fashioned bottles from the bulbs and steamed food in pits lines with the blades.
But the history of seaweed farming in Washington shows it’s not easy to turn algae into money.
Williams sent me several newspaper articles from the early 1900s forecasting huge markets — that never materialized — for potash, or potassium salts, and candied citron (branded “seatron”) derived from kelp.
Biologist Tom Mumford was hired by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources in the mid-1970s to foster seaweed aquaculture. He helped the Lummi Nation cultivate seaweed as a source of carrageenan, a food-thickening agent. But they couldn’t compete with growers in the tropics.
One company proposed two large farms near Anacortes to produce nori for sushi but backed off after public outcry.
Proponents haven’t given up, though. Washington Sea Grant and others got funding in 2019 to develop a training program for potential seaweed growers.
But as best I could determine, there’s only one commercial operation in the state. Blue Dot Sea Farms cultivates sugar kelp at a site near the Hood Canal Bridge. Finding markets has been tough, says co-owner Joth Davis, a longtime oyster grower. But they recently developed their first product: a savory kelp puff they call “seachirrones.”