Farming seafood goes beyond fish and shellfish – aquaculture includes the farming of seaweeds. Most production and consumption of seaweeds occurs in Asia, but one California-based company hopes to bring the seaweed revolution to the United States.
Beau Perry, Founder and CEO of Blue Evolution, didn’t originally set out to farm seaweed. But after working with finfish then shrimp aquaculture, and experiencing the crashes brought on by disease, he decided to pursue the underrated aquatic crop of seaweed.
Just like terrestrial plants, there are thousands of species of seaweeds that come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, all of which are jam packed with nutrients. Humans have utilized seaweed for thousands of years, most notably in Japan, China, and Korea. Sea vegetables are full of minerals and protein, and believed to help fight disease. When it comes to farming seafood, these plants are perhaps the most sustainable of all aquaculture: seaweeds not only require minimal inputs but also enhance the marine environment in which they are grown by absorbing carbon from the sea.
Perry is well versed in the goodness of seaweed, and calls it the most virtuous material on earth. Blue Evolution produces three types of sea veggies: two kelps (Alaria and Saccharina) and Ulva (green sea lettuce).
In Mexico, green sea lettuce, is grown onshore in conjunction with the University of Baja California, Mexico. Several tanks are housed at the university for research, where a number of grad students work with the main product as well as test Gracilaria species (also known as Ovo and found in popular Poke bowl dishes), nori, and kelp species. This facility creates a controlled system with many moving parts that allows for year-round harvest.
In Alaska, a hatchery was built in 2014 with a small pilot plot that yielded its first research harvest in 2015. Now, there are major kelp farms off the island of Kodiak as well Ketchikan. The outplanting off Kodiak City was the largest of its kind in North America, deploying 34,000 feet of line on which to grow the sea vegetable. Here, fishermen purchase the seed from Blue Evolution, grow the kelp offshore, then sell their final product back to the company.
This combination of offshore and onshore operations allows for flexibility and year-round production. Perry says they are capable of producing 25 times their current output in Mexico, and can certainly grow a heck of a lot of seaweed in Alaska’s cold waters. That is, once demand rises. And that’s the trick – working seaweed into the American diet.
But Perry’s got an idea: introducing seaweed pasta! Blue Evolution is not only farming and producing seaweed, but they’re developing pasta products infused with seaweed flake and flour. Penne, rotini, and even marinara sauce are sold online. Pasta is a staple to many Americans, so bringing the inventive ingredient of seaweed to a familiar family dish simply made sense. Several big grocery retailers have hopped onboard, including Sprouts Farmers Market. Blue Evolution’s current primary markets include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. But the plan is to bring their products to the national market and introduce seaweed to Americans as just another ingredient—think baked goods, seasoning, snacks, soups, and sauces.
By producing food items, Blue Evolution is more involved than the average processor. They’re not just growing seaweed, but also harvesting, drying, and packing it as an ingredient which then goes into production. While this can sometimes mean a longer process, it also provides a unique perspective. Much of the world’s farmed seaweed comes from China (by volume), where it grows alongside industrial urban areas. Conversely, Perry knows exactly where his seaweed comes from and the entire ensuing supply chain, meaning he can provide the whole story to buyers who want to tell it, like restaurants.
Part of this story is what seaweed can do to the water. Not only are sea vegetables a leafy marine superfood, but the production is incredibly sustainable. In fact, Blue Evolution’s operations in Alaska are carbon negative – growing their seaweed negates the energy used to produce it because of all the carbon absorbed by the plants. And their mission is to bring this virtuous product to you.
Perry notes that seaweed is largely an acceptable product to the average U.S. consumer, many of whom are dubious about buying seafood in the first place, not to mention skeptical of anything labeled as farmed seafood. But when 90% of the nation’s seafood is imported, likely 98% of seaweed, there’s certainly opportunity for development.
Blue Evolution strives to enhance people’s lives through a deeper connection to the ocean, and the way they do that is by tapping the seaweed potential. The goal is to make seaweed a common ingredient, to the point where it sits in the freezer beside your broccoli spears. Moving forward, don’t be surprised to see new grocery products, new ingredients, and new species, all rooted in seaweed. And don’t be afraid to try them—seaweed is good for your health and good for the planet!