Just east of the Kenai Peninsula in southern downtown Alaska lies Prince William Sound: an inlet full of tidal glaciers spanning 3,800 miles of coastline and flanked by the jagged Chugach Mountains. Commercial fishing is home to several species of salmon and other fish, and commercial fishing has been the main industry that has maintained its community for decades. But global warming caused by climate change has led to fewer fish stocks, making commercial fishing more challenging and less profitable.
“I have never had any interest in buying a fishing permit or owning my own boat because I saw the changes happen,” said Rion Schmidt, a native of Sugpiaq who has worked in fishing and fish research all his life. “Fewer and fewer fish, the water is heating up; I realized that while I might be able to live a subsistence lifestyle and eat these foods, it might not be entirely sustainable for someone like myself to make all my money on fishing.”
Instead, he looks for another species that has supported Native Alaskan for millennia: seaweed. The nonprofit Native Conservancy has started a program to empower and equip young indigenous peoples with the resources and training to start their own seaweed farms. The goal is threefold: to create economic opportunities; to support marine health; and connect people to a traditional food source.
Schmidt is one of seven soon-to-be-seaweed farmers working with the Native Conservancy to build his 22-acre seaweed farm next year. Growing this traditional food in its natural environment is an excellent example of food sovereignty, which Schmidt defines as “protecting indigenous peoples’ right to the resource.”
A growing industry
The Native Conservancy is the first native-owned and native-led land trust that allows Alaska’s natives to permanently protect and preserve endangered habitats in their ancestral homelands.
The Conservancy was founded in 2003 by Dune Lankard, who grew up in the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound. There, his family fished and hunted wild game and always had more than they could fit in their freezers. They regularly delivered their profits to friends and family who appreciated traditional food and did not have the time, energy or resources to hunt and fish themselves. He learned at an early age that sharing an abundant harvest was not only a philanthropy and good will, but also a responsibility.
When the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 left vital foods contaminated with oil, Lankard began to focus his life’s work on preserving and protecting the wild foods that had sustained his community for thousands of years. He started the Eyak Preservation Council the day of the spill, which then worked to successfully protect 765,000 acres of forest from clearing in the waste zone in 1995. The Preservation Council became a 501 (c) 3 in 2001 and is now focusing its efforts on salmon habitat protection and environmental justice.
Since its inception, the Native Conservancy has worked with the Preservation Council to preserve more than 1 million acres of wild salmon habitats along the Alaska Bay coastline. Many of the Native Conservancy’s current projects work to build resilience and food sovereignty by providing traditional food to the elderly, testing a portable freezer model in the community, and training seaweed farmers.
“Indigenous people are interested in the seaweed room for three reasons,” Lankaard said. Firstly, “restorative purpose; secondly, to cultivate and eat a nutritious traditional food source; and thirdly, to build a regenerative local economy.”
The ecological restorative benefits of growing seaweed are well documented: Kelp grows in the sea and requires no soil, fresh water or fertilizer. In contrast, it takes 108 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of corn and 216 gallons to produce a pint of soybeans. Kelp can also bind carbon up to 50 times faster than terrestrial forests, meaning it is a powerful tool for tackling the effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification and warming.
For Lankaard’s second point, seaweed is nutritious with high levels of potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium, so it can also support human health. Coastal tribes have been harvesting and drying seaweed for generations and using it in a variety of dishes from soups to seaweed cakes – a delicacy made by smoking and curing seaweed and dried berries. Lankaard remembers that in his childhood, his mother and grandmother harvested seaweed in the spring during low tide and brought it home to dry and eat.
To Lankaard’s last point, a regenerative economy is an economy that promotes cooperation and environmental sustainability rather than extraction. By supporting young indigenous seaweed farmers, Lankard wants to give local communities the opportunity to decide their own destiny. He also hopes to get ahead of what could be a burgeoning seaweed industry before it is fully profit-driven. The idea is to equip young indigenous farmers with the skills and resources they need to procure, cultivate, harvest, process and market seaweed themselves.
“It’s not that easy with this operation because there is no established seaweed industry; it is a small area,” Lankaard said. “That’s why we felt the only way indigenous people could get in, let alone compete in this new seaweed area, is if we address [potential] bottlenecks through our testing and our pilot programs. “
A new generation of farmers
The process of growing seaweed begins with a Native Conservancy diving crew picking up samples of fertile wild seaweed, or sorus, to maintain genetic diversity in the crop. The harvested sorus is then brought to Conservancy’s partners at the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute in Seward. Here, the spores are encouraged to settle on spools made of string wrapped around large PVC pipes, and the pliers begin to grow.
The water is changed daily to support the young algae. After six to eight weeks, when the algae are 2 to 3 inches long, it is transferred or transplanted to offshore test lines accessible by boat. The seaweed then grows to its full size in the open sea.
The Native Conservancy grows seaweed at seven test sites covering 100 miles within Prince William Sound. Over the past year, the organization has successfully grown 4,000 pounds of ribbon, sugar and even bull seaweed, a notoriously difficult species to grow. Lankard’s team regularly measures salinity, pH, nutritional profiles and growth profiles for seaweed.
“Our goal is to gather and synthesize information that will be most useful to future farmers,” said Tesia Bobrycki, director of regenerative economics at the Native Conservancy. This includes “a landscape analysis of the best, proven places to grow seaweed, array designs, species-specific modifications and best practices for planting, monitoring and harvesting,” Bobrycki said.
In addition to conducting research to inform future farmers, the Native Conservancy recently received funding from the Denali Commission, a federal agency that provides infrastructure and financial support throughout Alaska, to design a portable seaweed nursery. Conservancy makes this scaled-down model accessible to remote villages and communities around the state.
Start-up costs can be a major barrier to entry for new seaweed farmers, with the cost of permits, anchors, buoys and lines totaling tens of thousands of dollars. To address this, the Native Conservancy is working to help secure low-interest, long-term deferred loans to native farmers as they begin their mariculture activities. The Conservancy has pledges from several donors to launch the loan program and is in the process of interviewing financial institutions for the development of tribal and non-native communities to house this loan product.
Questions for the future
As Schmidt prepares to build his farm and the Native Conservancy looks to the future, many questions remain.
For seaweed harvested for commercial purposes, it can be difficult to market and create a value-creating product. New farmers need to find out what their regional markets look like for seaweed and whether they want to sell their harvest wholesale or work with producers to create new, value-creating products such as seaweed popcorn, pasta, pickles and salsas produced by companies, among others. a. Blue Evolution and Barnacle Foods. If the quality of harvested seaweed is not food approved, farmers may have to sell it at a lower price to be used as fertilizer or compost. New farmers will have to struggle with these questions while writing their business plans and they will not always have answers.
Another concern is to ensure that the carbon-binding power of seaweed cultivation is not wasted. While harvesting seaweed annually will certainly provide economic benefits, a major goal of the Native Conservancy is that for every hectare of seaweed harvested, one hectare of seaweed will remain in the water year-round to bind carbon in the long run and support marine health. Lankaard is looking at creating a 501 (c) (4) with regional tribes to push for a policy that would potentially allow society to cultivate restorative seaweed along with commercial seaweed.
Ultimately, Lankard hopes that both native and non-native customers will be interested in his community’s products, not only for taste or quality, but because these farmers are looking to live a new way on the planet – one that supports environmental recovery as well as a regenerative economy. While the coming months will certainly offer further questions and challenges, Lankaard is not deterred. He said, “Let’s just see what we are capable of accomplishing.”