SEATTLE — In winter, when the water is cold and clear, the conditions in Puget Sound are ideal for shellfish, Marine biologist Joth Davis says it's also great for kelp.
"It's got a kind of nutty flavor, and it's firm and crisp. So, it's not at all what you'd expect," Davis said.
Kelp thrives in the Hood Canal. It's what geographers call a fjord: deep in the center, shallower on the edges and perfect for seaweed production, according to Davis.
"It's got lots of nitrogen, which is helpful because that's what seaweed needs to grow," Davis said. "At the end of March, we can have blades that are 12-feet long. It's really quite amazing."
Seaweed cultivation is a long-established industry in Asia. It has picked up on the East Coast, and aquaculture is valued in the Pacific Northwest. But seaweed production, in particular, has yet to catch on.
"I think interest is booming," said Jodie Toft, deputy director at the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a nonprofit that works to restore marine habitat through collaborative projects.
But Toft is less certain if seaweed cultivation can become a wide-scale commercial operation in the Sound.
"I'm not sure if that's quite what we're headed for in the southern Salish Sea just because of some of the other constraints that we already have," Toft said.
Toft said a farmer interested in getting into seaweed in Washington state would need to acquire a series of permits and "buy in" approval from the region's indigenous tribes. Once the permit for a farm site is approved, commercial kelp seed would also need to be obtained.
"We're not quite there yet for having commercial seed available. I imagine Puget Sound will get there as a community in the next couple of years," Toft said.
"We are not going to grow kelp without having a use for it," Davis said.
Davis has been in marine farming for more than 30 years. After getting his PhD in fisheries science at the University of Washington, Davis realized seaweed is also good at reversing the effects of climate change.
Before kelp, Davis raised oysters, which revealed what seaweed can do to reduce ocean acidification.
The phenomenon occurs when carbon dioxide in the air soaks into the sea and then undergoes a chemical reaction that releases carbonic acid in the ocean.
"Its nickname is 'global warming's evil twin,'" said Meg Chadsey.
Chadsey is an ocean acidification specialist at UW's Sea Grant program. She says the concerns over ocean acidification first emerged from those who noticed it in Puget Sound, thanks to the area's large shellfish industry.
"Those shellfish have shells made out of calcium carbonate, which dissolves when seawater gets too acidic," Chadsey said.
And local hatcheries have begun to notice.
"When those juvenile shellfish started to suffer and, in some cases, die because of acidification, the alarm bells went off because people saw it happening," Chadsey said.
Seaweeds are by definition, algae. But, like plants, they also absorb Co2 and turn it into oxygen.
"So the idea is if carbon dioxide in the water is the source of the problem from the shellfish, then if you take the carbon dioxide back out, at least very locally, that might improve the seawater conditions so that the shellfish are not as harmed by the acidification," Chadsey said.
Marine biologists like Davis, who already had that oyster farm near Hood Head, got the green light to experiment further in 2016.
"It enabled us to basically build a kelp farm, and we did that. Then we found out, gosh, it just grows so well here," Davis said.
He also wondered about kelp's commercial potential. His two-and-a-half acre seaweed farm, a part of Blue Dot Sea Farms, yields 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of kelp a year, Davis said.
"Growing kelp is actually fairly easy to do. Figuring out what to do with kelp is a lot more difficult," Davis said.
"It is a very challenging endeavor," said Markos Scheer.
Scheer splits his time between Bainbridge Island and his own kelp operation, Seagrove Kelp Co., in southeast Alaska. He's a maritime law attorney who became interested in the prospects of a seaweed boom.
"About 2015, I started looking at this. Why hasn't this happened?" Scheer said.
Scheer and Davis said a strict permitting process makes it challenging to launch a seaweed farm.
"That's just the way it is here in this state. We're well regulated, and as a result, there are folks that are in the permit stage now trying to get permits to do what we're doing," Davis said.
Toft said applicants would start with the Joint Aquatic Resources Permit Application process, which involves local, federal and state agencies such as the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
"Seaweed farming is new to our area. So, there is no playbook that you can go to, even for the agencies that are in charge of this process," Chadsey added.
And seaweed is a relatively new food item among Americans.
"It is a building market, and part of that is a chicken and egg thing. People haven't had it available when they go out to restaurants, so they haven't been able to build that clarity," Scheer said.
But Scheer is looking to change that. The ribbon kelp that he grows in Alaska is available at local markets like Seattle's Uwajimaya Market, and he's putting it in products like seaweed salsa, pickles and even organic fertilizer.
Davis is also making things with his kelp like kelp snacks that will soon go to market.
He's optimistic that kelp could be a crop of the future.
"I would love to see more activity in growing kelp, like I said, because it's got all these sustainability benefits," Davis said.