In summary

Despite the demand for giant kelp, an environmentally friendly product, California prohibits new seaweed cultivation projects.

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By Brandon Barney, Special to CalMatters

Brandon Barney is the co-founder of Primary Ocean, a San Pedro company developing seaweed farms. He was featured in the recently released documentary “They Say It Can’t Be Done.”

At a recent public hearing, I told the California Coastal Commission that the state is ripe for revolution – a seaweed revolution. Thankfully, they listened.

The commission voted to approve an offshore project that plans to farm giant kelp. By the time it appeared on the commission’s docket, the project already had the backing of the federal government – including $5 million of federal funding. We’re thrilled that the outpouring of support from businesses, universities and nonprofits finally convinced regulators to let our project proceed.

But securing the green light for a project that will advance such goals as sustainable agriculture, carbon emissions reduction and renewable energy shouldn’t have been such a headache in the first place.

Our revolutionary offshore farm was already two years behind schedule because it hadn’t received clearance from regulatory agencies in California, a state where concern for the environment so often morphs into regulatory overreach. At least, that has been our experience.

The project is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy. Our aim is to disrupt the world’s biofuel and specialty chemical industries with farmed seaweed – in this case giant kelp, or macrocystis pyrifera – semi-autonomously grown and harvested on long lines in the open ocean off the coast of Southern California. A consortium of 12 aquaculture companies and universities – including my company Primary Ocean – are all members of a giant kelp cultivation network funded with federal money.

Seaweed is already the most sustainable superfood consumed by humans worldwide. It’s used in everything from cosmetics to biopharmaceuticals. Yet despite the enormous demand for this sustainable, environmentally friendly product, California prohibits new seaweed cultivation projects off its 1,000-mile coastline. Fully repealing that ban would boost our economy and help make the state a world leader in aquaculture.

Let’s not forget that in the 1970s, California pioneered ambitious aquaculture research into giant kelp, the fastest-growing organism on the planet. But the state ultimately put laws in place that block most aquaculture projects. And we’re feeling the pain today.

If the waters off California remain closed to aquaculture, it’s only a matter of time before commercial kelp farms could be established in Mexican waters, just across the border.

This would be a major loss not just to California but to the United States – and a squandered opportunity to help rejuvenate our economy.

At Primary Ocean, we recently developed “Organikelp,” a biostimulant solution derived from giant kelp that improves soil health, plant growth, yield and overall crop performance at every stage of the growth cycle. It’s designed to help farmers hit by drought by reducing the need for water, fertilizers and other chemicals while maintaining or increasing yields.

Our consortium’s offshore research project experienced significant delays because of the pandemic, not to mention California’s needlessly complex regulatory process. There is currently a California ban on new aquaculture leases for “bottom water” – the water closest to the seabed – which prevents a commercial giant kelp farm from being established in state waters. No new state bottom-water licenses have been granted in 25 years.

Even the California Coastal Commission’s recent approval of our project can’t undo the time and opportunities we’ve wasted over the past two decades.

Without a permanent legislative fix, it’s almost certain that commercial giant kelp farms, paid for with Californian capital, could be deployed as far away as Namibia in southwest Africa before they become prevalent here.

If it’s not going to be in “our backyard,” it will certainly be in someone else’s.

Why would the country’s most progressive state discourage projects that seek to feed people and help drought-stricken farmers, all with methods that enhance the quality of our environment?

It’s time to lift the prohibition on new kelp leases off California’s coast. It’s time, in fact, for a seaweed revolution.

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