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Outplanting kelp seedlings in the regenerative ocean farm led by Metlakatla First Nation in Northwest BC. Outplanting takes place in November.

A year on a regenerative kelp farm in northern BC

Outplanting kelp seedlings in the regenerative ocean farm led by Metlakatla First Nation in Northwest BC. Outplanting takes place in November.

Mary Williams BYLINE 2024

Welcome to a new year on the North Coast of British Columbia, on Coast Ts’msyen Territory. I’m Mary, the Mariculture Program Manager for Ecotrust Canada, and I’m going to take you on a year-long journey of how kelp farming works. As of now, the batch of tiny kelp babies the team with Metlakatla First Nation and Ecotrust Canada outplanted in November are probably just starting to become visible on the regenerative ocean farm.

Our year typically starts in September and wraps up in June. Check out the timeline.

And there you have it, a small glimpse of what it’s like to grow kelp on a regenerative ocean farm for a year. You might notice we have a few months off, and that it doesn’t seem like a full-time job, which is the beauty of the model. When Metlakatla First Nation’s aquaculture crew and Ecotrust Canada’s Food Systems team aren’t tending to the kelp, they’re performing regular maintenance of the farm site infrastructure or tending to the shellfish (more on what farming those tasty bivalves to come in another blog).

The social and environmental benefits of growing kelp on a regenerative ocean farm 

Metlakatla First Nation has been working on a regenerative ocean farming project in Prince Rupert, BC, with support from Ecotrust Canada’s team since Regenerative ocean farming (ROF) is a method of growing foods in underwater gardens inspired by the principles of regenerative agriculture. This holistic farming approach adopts sustainable practices that conserve, restore, and rebuild the natural and human systems a farm interacts with and depends on. Essentially, a healthy and diverse environment supports a thriving and productive farm.

In regenerative ocean farming, the idea is to use the entire water column to farm a variety of foods that grow well together while enhancing the surrounding environment by working in harmony with local marine ecosystems. With Metlakatla’s project on the North Coast, we are using long lines and lantern nets to grow scallops and a few species of kelp. There are many practical benefits to this system, which is creating year-long opportunities for community members to work on the water while feeding the northwest B.C. region.

Scallops are a nutrient-dense protein source rich in omega-3 fatty acids – great food for the heart. They are a filter-feeding shellfish species, meaning they help clean the ocean of excess nutrients and pollutants as they feed. Despite being filter-feeders, their meat is some of the cleanest and healthiest you can eat because the adductor muscle (the part of the scallop most commonly eaten in North America) doesn’t absorb pollutants.

Kelp is the umbrella term for the roughly 30 species of brown seaweeds worldwide. The types of kelp growing on the farm – winged, sugar, and giant kelp – are rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, Vitamin K and Vitamin A, along with carbohydrates, fats, and fibre. Kelp forests are also an important food source and habitat for marine species and are a vital component of healthy ocean ecosystems.

In a farming context, kelp grows well alongside shellfish because it helps absorb excess carbon from the ocean, potentially mitigating local ocean acidification. Due to increased carbon in the atmosphere, the ocean is absorbing more carbon, and consequently becoming more acidic. We are unsure what level of impact kelp farming could have on local ocean acidity, but this project provides an opportunity to perform critical research to better understand emerging solutions to issues caused by climate change.

And one final benefit to mention. Farming multiple species — like kelp and scallops — helps create year-round jobs when the farming seasons complement each other. Right now, our farming team has downtime on the kelp side of operations and is able to focus more on scallops.

Exciting plans for the future

During our time off this winter, we’re engaged in some exciting activities to further develop this start-up:

  • Metlakatla First Nation and Ecotrust Canada are working on business development and registration to give the farm an official name and brand, which will allow us to build a website for information and sales.
  • We’re fundraising and planning for the development of a local kelp and shellfish hatchery to grow seed near the farm in Prince Rupert, BC.
  • We’re performing research and development with our seafood products, supporting and securing buyers, offering community food distribution, and fine-tuning processing and distribution processes.
  • To enhance local food safety and research capacity for community and commercial food harvests, we’re collaborating with surrounding Nations and organizations to develop a regional shellfish testing lab.

I’ll be back in a few months to share the annual cycle for farming scallops, but in the meantime, if you’d like some kelp, and you’re in northwest BC, please reach out!

Contact Mary

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