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Alaska's Growing Kelp Industry Helps Drive Sea-To-Table Movement

Matt Kern harvests wild bull kelp for salsa that he and his partner, Lisa Heifetz, are selling as part of his new business.
Courtesy of Matt Kern and Lisa Heifetz
Matt Kern harvests wild bull kelp for salsa that he and his partner, Lisa Heifetz, are selling as part of his new business.

In February of last year, Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker signed an administrative order to help jumpstart mariculture, or sea farming, in the state. One Juneau couple is whipping up a recipe to make local kelp an enticing business and snack. They're part of a growing number of startups that see Alaska seaweed as a marketable food.

Kelp has become a big part of Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz's relationship.

"It's basically all we talk about it," Heifetz says with a laugh. "Every day of the week. Every night of the week. Every weekend."

Kern and Heifetz are dedicating so much of their time to seaweed because they've been laying the groundwork for a new business.

"Kelp salsa," Kern says. "It's made predominantly from bull kelp that we harvest from around Juneau."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn't have a formalized process for collecting wild kelp for commercial use — at least not yet. So, the couple forages under an experimental permit.

A lot of work and late nights go into making a batch of salsa. Kern pops the lid off a small mason jar and opens a bag of corn chips.

"Today we have a green salsa verde," he says. "And another flavor called campfire that has roasted garlic and onions."

Both jars of salsa contain lots of minced bull kelp. The campfire flavor is tart from the seaweed and mildly spiced.

The couple recently received a $40,000 Path to Prosperity grant, which helps Southeast Alaskan entrepreneurs grow their business. Last year, they made about 2,000 jars of salsa, mostly cooked up in their home kitchen and sold at the local public market. But they want to eventually expand distribution beyond Juneau.

Having access to enough foraged seaweed for that expansion could be difficult, but a California-based startup might be able to help. Blue Evolution is looking at the prospect of seaweed farming in Alaska. Right now, the company grows the plant in Mexico, dries it and turns it into pasta.

"They were really interested in doing domestic production," says marine biologist Tamsen Peeples, who is employed by Blue Evolution and works on the science of seaweed farming at the University of Alaska Southeast.

She says coastal states like Maine are already kelp farming, but developing it in Alaska has its advantages.

"Alaska has bountiful amounts of coastline, obviously, and clean water," Peeples says. "As an Alaskan, I think it's a great opportunity for individuals who otherwise in the winter are laying low between commercial fishing and tourism."

But one thing Alaska doesn't have is easy access to kelp seed. The department of fish and game says you can only farm with plants native to the region. An oyster company in Homer, Alaska sells some wild seaweed that grows on its lines. But the farmed variety is only growing at a couple of test sites in the state.

Kern and Heifetz set up shop at Juneau's public market.
/ Courtesy of Matt Kern and Lisa Heifetz
Courtesy of Matt Kern and Lisa Heifetz
Kern and Heifetz set up shop at Juneau's public market.

That's where Peeples' research comes in. She's been working on propagating seed from local kelp spores.

"In order for this industry to grow, we're going to have to get a number of other hatcheries to come online," Peeples says.

A new House bill could make it easier for nonprofit hatcheries to receive state loans. Even though those wouldn't apply to a company like Blue Evolution, Peeples thinks it's a good thing.

So far, she has successfully incubated varieties like sugar and ribbon kelp. And those plants are growing in the waters of Kodiak and Ketchikan. Blue Evolution will buy the seaweed back in the spring.

As their kelp salsa business grows, Kern and Heifetz say they're also interested.

"We plan to be sourcing directly from farms in the future," Heifetz says.

For them, it's not about building a seaweed snack empire.

"This wasn't a huge day-to-day leap in our lives ... to go from doing it on our home scale," Kern says. "'Because this is what we'd be doing with our time anyway."

That means building their business sustainably, making thousands of jars of kelp salsa and sharing it with friends and customers.

This report comes from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment. You can hear the audio here.

Copyright 2017 KTOO

Elizabeth Jenkins