(left to right) - Katie Terhaar, Nicole Matonak, Dr. Rafael Cuevas Uribe; Activity: Dr. Cuevas Uribe is weighing out seaweed bundles, and Katie and Nicole are preparing dropper lines by inserting seaweed at specified lengths and loosely coiling the lines to be put in the storage tank. | Photo by Kellie Jo Brown

HSU Seaweed Farm sets sail

The first commercially-approved seaweed farm in California will be on the map.
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The first commercially-approved seaweed farm in California will be on the map.

Humboldt State University is known for its cutting-edge science projects. One of these projects is an upcoming commercial seaweed farm in Humboldt Bay. A trailblazer in its own right, this project was spearheaded by HSU natural resource grad student Erika Thalman.

“I went into grad school originally wanting to do fish pathology, so this was something different for me, but I also really love algae,” Thalman said. “I was like ‘I also really kind of want a farm of my own someday.’ And I was like ‘Oh! Algae! Farm!’ so I was excited to be able to say ‘I’m a seaweed farmer.’”

Thalman has been growing seaweed at the HSU Marine Lab in Trinidad for the past year. This seaweed incubation process begins with sablefish, at the top of the food chain. The sablefish eat food from lower on the food chain and then produce feces that act as nutrients for the seaweed, which absorb them in turn.

“The seaweeds act as part of a bio-filter, which then sends less nutrient-dense water back to the fish,” Thalman said.

This bio-filter acts as kind of a recycling system with different levels of the food chain helping each other out.

Bren Smith is the executive director of Greenwave, a nonprofit that assists with training environmentally-focused farmers, and is a big proponent of the seaweed farm. Smith is excited about the future of regenerative agriculture among the oceans in a world already seeing the effects of climate change.

“There needs to be a transition in the oceans,” Smith said. “But what’s exciting about that is we get these opportunities to learn from the mistakes of land-based farming and the mistakes of industrial agriculture and really do it the right away. It’s all hands on deck.”

Thalman would like to put her seaweed to good use, whether that be food for consumption or fertilizer for gardens. The grade of seaweed dictates what it will be used for. If the seaweed is a lower grade, it can only be used for fertilizer and fodder, but if it has a high enough grade where it is deemed edible for humans, then it can be commercially sold.

Unfortunately, due to permitting issues, the seaweed is currently unable to be sold in any capacity, but when the time comes to sell the seaweed, Thalman plans to donate all the profits.

Smith is mindful of the extent to which the farm is financially sustainable.

“And the key from a farming perspective is how much grows — what volume do you get per meter,” Smith. “Because if you don’t get enough volume, then it is not a profitable farm.”

Before anyone could even worry about making money from the project, they had to worry about finding the money to fund it first.

Dr. Rafael Cuevas Uribe, an assistant professor in the fisheries biology department at Humboldt State, is another driving force behind the seaweed farm as he was the one that wrote the grant that helped fund the project. As Uribe explained, within the California State University system, there are a number of campuses that do agricultural research and subsequently get grants called the Agricultural Research Institute Grants to fund agricultural-related projects. Because HSU is one of the CSU campuses that is in that boat, it receives said grants, which are managed by Sponsored Programs.

Uribe tried to get one of these grants but ran into a major roadblock along the way. As it turns out, he had to monetarily match 50 percent of the requested amount of funding.

“And that was kind of an issue in our project and we thought that we had everything figured out and at the last day when the project was due, we found out that we did not have the match to do this project,” Uribe said. “And we were almost dropping the ball right there.”

Also stepping in are a growing number of people and agencies interested in getting into the seaweed farming industry. However, as Thalman noted, there are a lot of heads being scratched.

“People don’t know what to do,” Thalman said. “They don’t know how to get permit regulations, so we’re kind of the guinea pigs. They’re watching what we do and then they’re going to use what we learned to set up their farms in the future.”

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