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Why we need to farm the ocean for kelp and shellfish

Mary Williams is the Project Coordinator for the Restorative Ocean Farming Project with Coastal Shellfish Corporation and the North Coast Innovation Lab. She is currently completing her master’s in environmental studies with a concentration in aquaculture and Indigenous resource management at York University.

Access to affordable and healthy foods is a common concern for rural, remote, and Indigenous communities — an issue I have been exploring as a graduate student. I was excited to spend the summer working on a community-based restorative ocean farm with Ecotrust Canada and Coastal Shellfish Corporation, a shellfish farming operation in which the Metlakatla First Nation are the majority shareholders. The project is enhancing sustainable and culturally relevant food security and economic development for Metlakatla, while providing much-needed access to locally produced seafoods in Prince Rupert.

Nature-based solutions

Restorative ocean farming is an innovative approach to cultivating multiple marine species in vertical ocean plots. I am fascinated by the healing potential of the restorative farming method. The technique involves creating mini ecosystems through growing various plant and animal species that complement one another, while enhancing surrounding ocean ecosystem health. Some restorative ocean farmers claim that the best fishing can be found directly around their farm.

The Restorative Ocean Farming Project began in January 2019, and has been testing the feasibility of growing scallops, oysters, and different kelp species, with the aim of farming more seafoods in the future, as guided by community and market demand. The research and work done last year by Coastal Shellfish Corporation and the previous project coordinator, Taylor Reidlinger, has proven that it is feasible to grow kelp and shellfish in the pristine waters that encompass Metlakatla and Coast Ts’msyen Territories.

Kelp and shellfish are incredibly nutritious foods with high levels of protein, omegas, calcium, iron, iodine, and other important vitamins and minerals. The benefits go beyond food security:

  • Scallop shells can be used in paving materials, alkaline solutions, and food additives.
  • Kelp can be used in plastic alternatives, fertilizers, health and beauty products, and more.
  • Shellfish help filter the ocean of excess pollutants and nutrients, while kelp de-acidifies the ocean through sequestering carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

Promising benefits and potential pitfalls

The kelp industry is relatively new in Canada, presenting challenges in finding ways to sell kelp products at the rate in which this impressive sea vegetable grows. Kelp is one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet and the future ocean farm could produce tonnes of it each year. Kelp’s one pitfall is that it’s very perishable and releases the carbon it captured back into the atmosphere as it decomposes, meaning kelp needs to be processed and/or sold quickly after harvest.

But how to sell kelp to Canadians who have never considered eating seaweed before? While kelp has been an important food in several Asian countries and Indigenous cultures for thousands of years, significant work needs to be done to continue growing the Canadian market.

I had no interest in eating kelp for a long time. I thought all kelp species and products had the strong oceanic flavour that as a child, I did not enjoy in seaweed snacks. A couple of summers ago, I was very pleasantly surprised when cooked kelp was one of the sides at a noodle joint I visited, and it was much tastier than I remembered. I think chefs have an opportunity and responsibility to make climate-friendly foods exciting.

Shellfish and kelp will become staples in our diets as we continue to experience symptoms of climate change, which will encourage a greater reliance on low impact, zero input foods.

-Mary Williams

Food of the future

Luckily, kelp and shellfish are delicious foods that can be flavoured and consumed in endless ways, like lasagna and pasta with kelp noodles or flakes, lemon and garlic kelp pesto or butter, kelp crusted fish and vegetables, and grapefruit lime scallop ceviche.

We are currently working on community outreach, and kelp market research and development, to build support for the continued development of the Restorative Ocean Farming Project. I am hopeful about the advancements we can make in this project over the summer, as the gaps in food distribution networks exacerbated by the current pandemic have turned a great idea into a necessary one.