All About Seaweed – Nature’s Superfood
October 19, 2023
This fun fact might come in handy at your next dinner party: seaweed farming is the world’s fastest growing aquaculture sector. That’s more than shrimp, salmon or any other seafood you may be about to eat.
Seaweed plays a critical role in the health of our aquatic ecosystems, yet its multitude of benefits extend far beyond the ocean into our daily lives. Today, seaweed can be found in protein-packed snacks, nutritious supplements for people, pets and even fish, and as a tool for pioneering technology. It’s no wonder this superfood is winning the popularity contest.
Here, we break down everything you ever wanted to know about sustainable seaweed. We’re quite sure it will grow on you.
The state of seaweed
Seaweed has a long history of cultivation for many uses, including as a centuries-old culinary staple. But this “Vitamin-Sea” has quickly evolved beyond its traditional roots to become a fresh new ingredient across cultures and categories worldwide. Seaweed-based noodles, protein balls, savory salts, hot sauces and anti-inflammatory beauty creams have hit the top of 2023’s trend charts and show no signs of slowing down.
According to the FAO, over 35 million tons of seaweed were produced worldwide in 2020, which accounted for 30% of marine aquaculture, or seafood farming.
Seaweed farming has been practiced for thousands of years, primarily in Asia, but has seen a recent surge in Europe and North America.
NOAA notes that farmers in Alaska produced more than 112,000 pounds of sugar, ribbon, and bull kelp in 2019 – a 200% increase over the state’s first commercial harvest in 2017. Meanwhile, Maine is leading the nation in seaweed aquaculture, according to the Maine Aquaculture Association, producing over 60% of U.S. kelp, which it celebrates with an Annual Seaweed Week.
“The exciting thing about seaweed is its potential in many different areas, from climate change, use of bioplastic, food security, medicine and more,” says ASC’s Seaweed Account Manager and resident expert, Patricia Bianchi.
Bianchi oversees ASC’s program in accordance with the ASC-MSC Seaweed Standard, which was developed as a joint standard for environmentally sustainable and socially responsible seaweed production that applies to both farmed and wild harvested seaweed. Cultivating seaweed shows huge promise in leading us toward a more sustainable future, but as with any farming there are impacts that can affect the growing environment and the end product if not treated with care.
“It is crucial to emphasize that as seaweed production increases, we must ensure that seaweed farming is done in a responsible and sustainable manner,” says Bianchi. “Sustainable practices and responsible cultivation methods are essential to maintain the long-term viability and environmental integrity of the algae sector.”
All in the family
Speaking of algae, there’s a lot to digest when it comes to the thousands of species in the sea. For example, the terms “seaweed” and “algae” are not a single taxonomic entity. In fact, not all of them are technically even plants. Furthermore, how does seaweed fit into the scope of another trending topic – Blue Food?
“Blue food encompasses a wide range of aquatic organisms used for food, extending beyond just seaweed,” offers Bianchi. “Seaweed refers to marine algae, including both macroalgae and microalgae. Macroalgae, such as kelp and nori, are commonly used for human consumption, fertilizers, animal feed and extracts. Microalgae, on the other hand, are mainly used in aquaculture, food supplements and biofuel production. These aquatic organisms are photosynthetic and have diverse applications across various industries.”
Veramaris is an ASC-certified algae farm located in Blair, Nebraska that provides an inside look at the unique innovations taking place in the industry by way of less familiar ingredients and techniques. Their journey started like something from a movie, when NASA asked scientists to solve the challenge of growing food in space. A few of those scientists went on to create a new company that formed the basis of Veramaris algal oil.
“When people hear algae they think seaweed like kelp or maybe sargassum, the stuff that clogs up beaches,” says Ian Carr, Global Business Development Director for Veramaris. “Those are types of algae, of course. Science classifies those algae as multi-cellular. Our strain of Schizochytrium algae, is a single cell organism that produces the highest potency of omega 3s (EPA & DHA) on earth. It’s called a microalgae because you need a microscope to see the individual organisms.”
Veramaris is expanding access to sustainable omega-3 (healthy fats) that are rich in both EPA & DHA with the world’s first ASC-MSC-certified microalgae oil for fish and shrimp feed.
Carr explains: “Only a few years on from opening our full commercial scale facility, farmers have seen the opportunity to source omega-3 from algae as a way to take risk out of their supply chains for fish oil, which is traditionally the primary source of omega-3 for fish feed. At the same time, they can control the omega-3 content of the feed to ensure the health and welfare benefits for the animals in their care. Finally, higher omega-3 levels in feed translate to higher levels in the fish fillet too, and that’s good for people who choose to eat farm-raised seafood as part of a healthy diet.”
Riverence Provisions, based in Idaho’s Magic Valley, was the first trout farm to become ASC Certified in the United States after meeting ASC’s rigorous standards. Their ongoing commitment to responsible aquaculture means being good stewards of their land and community, but it also means providing their fish with a healthy and sustainable food source.
“Good nutrition is imperative for our fish, and we strive to formulate a diet that is good for them and the environment,” says Todd English, Director of Sustainability for Riverence. “As part of that mix, we use Veramaris algae oil in our steelhead trout’s diet because it not only increases the omega-3 content for our fish, but it does so without the need for additional wild fish oil.”
Inclusion of ASC-certified algal oil in ASC-certified fish diets helps to illustrate the purpose behind ASC’s new Feed Standard. The standard was developed to address the production of feed and its ingredients, which is one of the biggest potential impact areas in aquaculture.
Aquaculture, like agriculture?
Along with a high diversity of seaweed species, there are many techniques for farming and harvesting.
Despite what the name infers, not all seaweed is farmed in the sea.
Seaweed can be tended in the ocean or on land using a multitude of methods. Offshore farming involves anchoring seaweed to lines or rafts, while onshore farming can be done in ponds or tanks.
Veramaris’ cultivates its microalgae right on U.S. soil. “It’s a land-based system that puts me in mind of a land-based fish farm, only the organisms we feed and care for are individually visible only under a microscope,” says Carr. “Compared to the growth cycle of a fish farm, ours is really fast, too. We start with a cryovial small enough to fit between your thumb and forefinger, and in two and a half weeks we have a harvestable biomass six stories tall. It’s enough to give a person a real positive feeling about global food security.
“We also process, package, and ship from our site in Nebraska. We extract the oil to mainly support aquaculture, but also some pet and human applications. Then, the co-product goes to feed cattle. It’s a zero-waste facility.”
Farming for the future
Out of all blue food, seaweeds and farmed bivalves, such as mussels and oysters, are found to generate the fewest greenhouse gas and nutrient emissions and use the least land and water. Commonly eaten farmed finfish, such as salmon and carp, also outperform other farmed blue foods on several environmental indicators, while most blue foods outperform chicken (learn more).
In the words of Rod Fujita, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), seaweed is having a moment.
In addition to being a valuable source of food and nutrients, Fujita calls out seaweed’s ability to remediate ocean acidification and help marine organisms thrive, remove excess nutrients that can help prevent harmful algal blooms and fish die-offs, and provide food and shelter for grateful sea dwellers.
EDF outlines how seaweeds have the potential to sequester more carbon and help avoid greenhouse gas emissions by:
- Reversing the loss of seaweed forests by reducing pollution, restoring predators to control overgrazing and other actions
- Creating a new offshore seaweed farming industry to take advantage of vast areas of ocean that are suitable for seaweed farming but not currently being farmed
- Setting aside a portion of the seaweed crop to be used to store carbon safely
- Developing seaweed into a feed for cattle that reduces animal methane emissions
- Developing new products from seaweed, such as long-lasting bioplastics that can replace plastics derived from fossil fuels
- Converting seaweed into biofuels to replace fossil fuels
“Seaweed farming offers an exciting and sustainable opportunity to harness the potential of these marine resources. The combination of diverse species, versatile uses, and adaptable farming techniques makes farming seaweed an important practice that contributes to food security, environmental sustainability, and economic growth,” says Bianchi. “Not to mention it is highly nutritious, rich in vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids. Seaweed is also an abundant source of dietary fiber and can be a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets.”
“Demand for delicious, nutritious food is growing with the earth’s growing population,” adds Carr. “More seafood means more aquaculture. Algal oil is a regenerative feed ingredient that supports aquaculture’s responsible growth. So by asking for ASC-certified and farm-raised seafood that is also fed by sustainable algae, consumers are doing all they can to get seafood that is good for them and the planet, making an investment in the transformation of the future of food.”
Interested in working more seaweed into your diet? Get started with these easy and delicious recipes!
- Dashi Tofu Ramen with Seaweed Broth
- Wood Grilled Salmon & Kelp Noodle Salad
- Seaweed Salad
- Rice Balls
- Cucumber and Wakame Sunomono (pickles)
If you’re still hungry for facts about seaweed, visit The World Bank’s 2023 Global Seaweed Markets Report here.