Current Status of the Seaweed Industry

Global Seaweed

If you walk into a local grocery store today, there is a much higher chance that you will find some type of seaweed product than there was 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. This is in part due to the exponential growth of the global seaweed industry over the past 25 years. Seaweed production first began to ramp up in East Asian and Southeast Asian nations including China, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines during the late 20th century.

Graphic credit: Phyconomy

Rapid growth of the seaweed industry occurred from the 1970s onward and was driven by high demand for farmed seaweed. This demand came out of a need for fast-growing, nutritious food in East Asia (particularly China) and a pre-existing deep, cultural history of seaweed use in East Asian cuisine. The growth of the industry was particularly prominent in China where seaweed farming was deeply supported by research and government institutions. Commercialization of the chemical properties of seaweed (such as its use as a thickening and/or stabilizing agent in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals) also played a significant role in the growth of seaweed aquaculture, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines where a large portion of farmed seaweed is processed for its extracts. 

Today, seaweed production has reached a whopping 36.17 million metric tons (wet weight) with 35 million of those metric tons coming from aquaculture (97 percent). China is the world’s leading producer of seaweed by over 10 million metric tons, and is responsible for nearly 60 percent of farmed seaweed production as of 2020. Other nations with significant contributions to the global seaweed market include Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, and North Korea. The only non-East Asian and Southeast Asian nations breaking the top 10 seaweed producers as of 2020 were Tanzania, Russia, and Chile. Combined, these three nations produced 0.13 million metric tons of seaweed (less than 1 percent of global seaweed landings) in 2020.

Graphic credit: Seaweed Insights

Eight species made up 93.7 percent of global seaweed landings in 2020, and all of these species were either brown or red algae. Although kelp farming is what we most commonly think of in the United States when we hear “seaweed aquaculture,” globally, more red seaweeds are grown by volume than kelps (53 percent red seaweeds compared to 47 percent brown seaweeds including kelp). While the brown seaweeds are commonly processed for human consumption directly as Kombu or Wakame, red seaweeds are often processed to extract carrageenan and agar which may be added to food or other products during subsequent production processes. However, some red seaweeds are eaten directly– like Nori– and some extracts– like alginate– come from brown seaweeds.

Saccharina

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Graphic credit: Seaweed Insights

US Seaweed

With seaweed production booming, new seaweed products being developed, and global trade expanding the reach of seaweed products to new markets, there are opportunities for newly emerging seaweed producers to come on the scene. The United States– primarily led by Maine– has entered the seaweed aquaculture arena in the last 15 years with the first successful commercial farm in the country beginning operations on the Maine coast in 2010, and research and development efforts going back to the 1990’s. Since then, farmed seaweed production in the country has grown exponentially, with the nation’s top producers (Maine and Alaska) landing around 1.5 million wet pounds in 2022.

However, even with rapidly growing seaweed aquaculture production in the United States, the industry here still represents less than 0.01 percent of the global seaweed supply.

Maine Seaweed

Maine was the first state to begin farming seaweed in the US, although the wild harvested seaweed industry here existed before that with companies including SOURCE, Inc. and Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. In 1995-1996, an early seaweed aquaculture operation was established in Eastport, Maine by Coastal Plantations Inc. in partnership with the University of Connecticut’s Yarish Lab. Subsequent experimental seaweed farming continued in Maine for nearly 15 years before commercial seaweed aquaculture began in 2010. Ocean Approved (now Atlantic Sea Farms) was the first commercial seaweed farm to open and continues to be the largest seaweed aquaculture company in the nation.

Today, over 40 seaweed farms exist along the Maine coast and together they produce ~1 million wet pounds of seaweed– nearly all kelp. Notably, many of Maine’s seaweed farmers are also commercial fishermen, lobstermen, shellfish farmers, and marine business owners, who are using seaweed to diversify their incomes on the working waterfront. Some of these farms operate as small businesses that partner with larger companies like Atlantic Sea Farms to process, market, and sell their raw product. Meanwhile, other farms have created unique seaweed brands and products that they process and sell to consumers themselves. These two approaches to kelp farming represent the primary business models for Maine seaweed farms: contract farming and vertically integrated farming.

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First, there is the contract farmer model employed by companies like Atlantic Sea Farms. In this partner-farmer model, contracted kelp farmers are supplied seed string and farming support and their harvest is sold back to the contracting company at the end of the season for an agreed upon price. The contract farmer model is particularly appealing to farmers who are interested in being on the water but would prefer to let someone else take care of things on the marketing and processing side. With sales outlets for farmed kelp still emerging, this type of processor-farmer contracting has helped provide year-after-year stability and enabled significant growth in the industry in the northeast, particularly in the past.

The second popular business model for seaweed farming in Maine is the vertically integrated farm. In this model, businesses have their own farms and independently carry out their own processing, distribution, and marketing. Some vertically integrated farms buy their seed from outside nurseries but fully integrated farms also produce their own seed for grow-out. While this model requires significantly more time and logistics on the part of farmers before and after the kelp is harvested, these efforts often allow farmers to tap into different markets and create unique products and partnerships with other local businesses.

At present, the majority of seaweed grown in Maine is incorporated in value-added products, and the median market price that Maine seaweed farmers can expect to get per wet pound is $0.60. That market price may vary depending on organic certification status and the purchaser, but on the whole, farmers working under the contract model reliably make $0.60/lb.