Spontaneous art project made from a fresh bull kelp bulb.

I just spent a couple of days in a conference on mariculture, farming in the ocean. The Kodiak Daily Mirror featured it on Friday.

It was the first of its kind in Kodiak and there was a lot of great information to be heard and found about the topic. In Alaska, finfish farming is prohibited by law, but shellfish farming and seaweed farming is not. As it turns out, there are a lot of people interested in growing these things and turning it into a big business. It was evident that we will see much activity in those sectors along Kodiak’s shorelines in the coming 15 years.

As with everything new there are concerns and precautions, lots of questions and also a fair amount of excitement and hopeful energy. The best thing about such conferences is the exchange of information and the contagious nature of this hopeful energy, which sparks the smoldering ideas slumbering in people’s minds into small flames of activity. 

As for me, I walked out with my head full of ideas for articles for this column as well as opportunities to design lesson plans and experiments around seeding and growing the tiny seaweed starts. 

I am always looking for those opportunities where an effect in nature in response to a change can be observed almost immediately. This is rarely the case in scientific study, but we seldom have the luxury of long-term study in a classroom setting. In fact, time is a common limitation in all kinds of laboratory research, because the longer the study takes, the more laboratory effects can be introduced and the more resources are required.

Seaweed mariculture is potentially a commercial enterprise with a positive effect on the local oceanic environment. Because seaweed need carbon to grow their cells, which they take out of the water, they would decrease the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide and its derivatives in the surrounding water. This in turn would change the equilibrium at the water’s surface into dissolving more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which then gets transformed into seaweed growth as well. Just as a rainforest is a green lung of the planet, a seaweed bed would do the same service, with the only difference that the carbon dioxide has to dissolve into the water first, so that the seaweed can absorb it. The location of Kodiak Island supplies best growing conditions for seaweeds, because our water is rich in nutrients and naturally contains high levels of carbon in its various forms. 

So, can seaweed growing counteract climate change and ocean acidification? I am asking questions that are far too big for a newspaper column and require years of study and meticulous calculations and models. 

As we harvest the seaweed and remove it from the ocean, we are taking some of that carbon out of the oceanic carbon cycle. Locally, we will find a change in carbon chemistry in the water, which may also locally provide better growing conditions for shellfish. However, nothing goes “away” and we are moving large amounts of carbon from the water to land to be food, fertilizer, biofuel or many other products that can be made from seaweeds. Also, the transport and processing cost must be considered: how much energy is used and how much carbon dioxide produced in the process of getting that seaweed to market? 

If you eat the wonderful seaweed salsa, your body processes it and the carbon in the kelp is converted back into carbon dioxide which you then breathe out into the atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a nay-sayer, but we need to look at the whole life cycle of a product to make the call whether it is a carbon dioxide net gain or loss.

One thing I learned and was intrigued by was a study that showed that cows fed a certain red seaweed with their diet reduced their methane output by up to 60%. Now here is something that could make a huge difference in the global numbers and lock some of that carbon in solid form rather than cycling it through the atmosphere as a gas, where it messes with our planet’s heat balance. There is currently no way to supply the global meat producing cattle industry with seaweed to feed to their cows, but what an interesting avenue for sustainable farming collaborations. 

Climate change and ocean acidification are topics that are so big and ugly that it is easy to get depressed and discouraged by their implications. But the time of denial is over, and recent polls reflect that most Americans are ready to see policy change in response to climate change. While the scientific community has reported the facts and signs of change for a long time, it is now reaching the most reluctant and stubborn politicians: Recently, Rep. Francis Rooney from Florida was quoted with the words: “I’m a conservative Republican and I believe climate change is real. It’s time for my fellow Republicans in Congress to stop treating this environmental threat as something abstract and political and recognize that it’s already affecting their constituents in their daily lives.” Apparently, it is still a matter of “believing” rather than taking an educated look at the facts, but I’ll chose to take it as a good sign that we are finally moving away from this ridiculous political blockage. 

If you still think that a person can’t make a change in the world, please read up on the life story of Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden turned climate change activist. We have an amazing planet in our stewardship and we should feel empowered by hero’s like her who call us out of our comfortable excuses to stand up and speak out for it.

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