Companies want to grow seaweed in California to fight climate change. They’re held back by environmental regulations

It absorbs carbon. It reduces emissions on dairy farms. It can be used as food, fuel and fertilizer. It requires nothing but seawater and sunlight to grow.

Seaweed has become a symbol of hope in mitigating climate change, and at least a half dozen companies are actively trying to farm it in California. They aim to be part of what’s called the blue economy, a movement to use the ocean’s resources in a sustainable, if not regenerative, way. But getting a permit to set up a seaweed farm in state waters involves navigating a permitting process that can take many years and cost many thousands of dollars.

“I just don’t understand why this is so difficult when it’s something that is so important and could be so good for the environment,” said Daniel Marquez of PharmerSea, who has waited six years to get state permission to farm kelp on the 25-acre underwater site he leases north of Santa Barbara, for use in research and in the cosmetics company he owns with his wife. He supports state environmental protections, but said, “We’re just asking, ‘Can you can you move it along a little bit?’ Because this is ridiculous.”

Pointing to thriving seaweed farming industries in Alaska, Hawaii and Maine, would-be California seaweed growers say the bottleneck is getting in the way of what could be a boon to the environment. With the exception of a few locations where the state has granted jurisdiction to local harbor districts or ports, California has not issued a new lease for commercial aquaculture, including seaweed or shellfish, in more than 25 years.

The main reason is likely because applicants are uncertain they would be approved after going through what can be an expensive environmental review process required by California Environmental Quality Act, said said Randy Lovell, aquaculture coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Graduate student Kalani Ortiz ties seed string to a support rope at the seaweed farm.

Graduate student Kalani Ortiz ties seed string to a support rope at the seaweed farm.

Ellen Mary Cronin/Special to The Chronicle

“They treat permitting a new shellfish farm like a nuclear power plant,” said Hog Island Oyster Co. CEO John Finger, referring to the California Coastal Commission, one of multiple agencies that signs off on a new project. Hog Island gave up trying to farm seaweed next to its oyster and clam beds in Tomales Bay a few years ago because of permitting hassle, even though varieties like nori, the type used in sushi, grow naturally there. “It’s beautiful stuff. We get sheets of it all over our gear.”

Oyster and clam growers are interested in growing seaweed because it absorbs carbon, reducing the ocean acidification that harms shellfish. Seaweed is estimated to sequester carbon at many times the rate of terrestrial forests, though more research is needed.

Worldwide production of farmed seaweed doubled from 2006 to 2015 from 16 million tons to 32 million tons, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In addition to varieties like nori or sea lettuce that can be farmed for humans to eat, seaweed can be used to make bioplastic as well as biofuel. The U.S. Department of Energy recently invested $55 million for research into farming it for that purpose, including at several California companies and universities.

Yet it’s still in its infancy in California. The state’s first commercial open-water seaweed farm opened in 2020 in Humboldt Bay, whose harbor district has its own authority to grant permits. Working with GreenWave, a nonprofit that supports regenerative aquaculture, Humboldt State University fisheries biology Professor Rafael Cuevas Uribe and his lab started the farm by growing red dulse, an edible variety native to the bay.

Uribe’s lab is now researching how to cultivate bull kelp both for commercial use and restoration of the wild kelp forest in Northern California, which has declined by 95% in recent years because of warm water conditions and an explosion in purple sea urchin.

“In general, seaweeds are very needed in our waters,” said Kalani Ortiz, a graduate student at the lab. “Kelp is a huge keystone species,” as a habitat for many types of fish and invertebrates.

Seaweed farmers need to first apply for what’s called a state water bottom lease, because farming involves setting anchors on the ocean floor, even though the seaweed itself is grown in the water column. That process may generate the need for an environmental review, which can cost $25,000 to $500,000, according to GreenWave.

Graduate student Kalani Ortiz measures light radiation in the water at the seaweed farm on Humboldt Bay in Eureka.

Graduate student Kalani Ortiz measures light radiation in the water at the seaweed farm on Humboldt Bay in Eureka.

Ellen Mary Cronin/Special to The Chronicle

One ecological consideration is the type of sea floor at a proposed location, said Lovell, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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