Seaweed is integral to the underwater ecosystem as it provides a foundation for life in our oceans—food, energy, habitat, oxygen, and more. According to NOAA, “seaweed is the common name for countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean as well as in rivers, lakes, and other water bodies.” This conglomeration of species is responsible for providing food and habitat to marine critters, medicinal benefits to humans, among many other environmental advantages.

How it’s Made

Seaweed is composed of over 10,000 different species found across most of the world’s water bodies. Kelp, the largest of the seaweeds that are responsible for creating underwater forests, attaches to the seafloor and grows rapidly towards the surface of the water, fueled by the energy of the sun, creating underwater forests. An alternative method to naturally grown seaweed is farming seaweed. Seaweed farming is the fastest-growing aquaculture sector… farmers in Alaska produced more than 112,000 pounds of sugar, ribbon, and bull kelp in 2019. That’s a 200 percent increase over the state’s first commercial harvest in 2017.

Unlike land-based crops, seaweed doesn’t require fertilizer, pesticides, freshwater, or, obviously, land. It requires fairly little maintenance, and it grows fast—some marine algae can be ready to harvest in as little as six weeks. Because seaweed grows vertically, farming it does not require a lot of surface area. Seaweed also absorbs CO2 while it’s growing, making it a valuable carbon sink. Farmed seaweed makes up 98% of the world’s seaweed harvest, leaving wild beds intact and helping to preserve our ocean and coastal ecosystems.

After seaweed is harvested, it can be used for a variety of commercial purposes including food, beauty, medicine, packaging, and industrial. You may have never noticed that seaweed is an ingredient in your face masks, lotions, shampoos, and tubes of toothpaste—the next time you go to the store, check out the ingredient lists of some of your favorite skincare products!

Seaweed farming is a whole new way of seeing “farm to table” come to life. You may have tried seaweed in your traditional sushi but it can also be found in salads, snack products, animal feed, and even in bakery products. New uses are being thought up every day.

Importance of Seaweed

Seaweed farming is not a new practice, as it dates back to Japan as early as 1670 in Tokyo Bay however, it has been more recently recognized for its phenomenal ecosystem benefits. According to World Wildlife Fund, “farming seaweed is an efficient way to produce highly nutritious food for a growing population. It acts as an underwater forest that absorbs carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, making it a valuable tool to fight climate change and a water purifier, while also creating new habitat for a diversity of marine life.”

One of the uses of farmed seaweed is to provide feed for livestock. It is a low-cost, nutritious supplement to farm animals’ diets, that could result in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Cows burp up 200–500 liters of methane daily, but adding seaweed supplements to cattle feed may inhibit methane production, which could help cut their greenhouse gas emissions drastically.” – World Wildlife Fund

Beyond this, seaweed combats ocean acidification, which helps to protect local shellfish populations. By protecting shellfish populations, it is preserving an important natural nutrition source for many people across the globe, especially those residing in coastal communities.

Analysis by WWF, based on figures from the World Bank, suggests that farming just 6.51% of the world’s exclusive economic zones (within 200 nautical miles of shore) would utilize all the carbon that is added to the oceans each year to begin to reverse ocean acidification.

What WWF is Doing to Support

WWF recognizes the immense environmental and economic value of farming seaweed and is invested in scaling up the industry in a big way. With support from partners, WWF-US has invested in Ocean Rainforest to accelerate the growth of offshore seaweed production in the Faroe Islands and Scotland-based Oceanium to turn seaweed into biodegradable packaging alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. These investments help scale technologies that can revolutionize the way we think about ocean health, climate mitigation, and food security.

World Wildlife Fund is ultimately aiming to ignite a shift in how we as humans think about ocean farming, and the potential that it could have both environmentally and economically. WWF has initiated and supported projects in a variety of places, including Maine and Madagascar to directly elevate the impact of seaweed farming.

Traditional seaweed farming industries at Semporna, Sabah. This local industry is part of the marine spatial planning of WWF-Malaysia Semporna PCA team.

© WWF-Malaysia / Mazidi Abd Ghani

In Maine, WWF has been working with researchers and companies to increase demand for seaweed products and to remove barriers for farmers to grow seaweed. Some of these products include animal feed, packaging alternatives, and plant-based meat substitutes. By doing this, they hope to have a place for more farms to sell their seaweed and ensure that they are recognized for their immense benefits in the consumer market. This not only helps the environment but also aids in the creation of jobs for local coastal communities. For many, water work like fishing or aquaculture has run in their family for centuries, and now with seaweed farming, families can continue to carry this lineage. In Maine, this is especially important as many people still live entirely off the ocean and rely on this vast body of water for their food and economic livelihoods.

In Madagascar, WWF is working with the small coastal community of Ankoba. This traditional fishing village has been experiencing drought leading to a decline in their agricultural production. Fisheries in this region are already strained and need alternative sources of income to revive their livelihoods. Due to this, they have begun to implement seaweed farming not just to reignite their economy but also to revive their fish populations by providing a safe habitat and source of food for them. This initiative is led by local women in the Ankoba community further helping to involve women in income-generating activities. Seaweed farming here is helping to support climate change mitigation in an at-risk island community while providing many economic and social benefits.

Seaweed is helping to pave the way for a sustainable and regenerative future of food systems for all species. To learn more about the work that WWF is doing with seaweed farming to combat climate change, look at the ABC News feature below.