ill Collins knows the s-word is one that comes up a lot when people think about eating kelp. “Everybody considers seaweed to be the smelly, slimy thing you see on a beach,” he says. “Well, if you took a fresh bag of carrots and threw them out on a beach and let them sit for two weeks, they'd be slimy and smelling, too.”
As chairman and co-founder of Sidney, B.C.’s Cascadia Seaweed, Collins has access to the best, freshest cultivation—and he swears it tastes different than what people expect.
“It's crunchy, it's not salty,” he describes.
“If you rinsed it in freshwater, you'd find that it doesn't taste like the sea. It’s maybe a little minerally, but not in an offensive way.” Think of the crispest, newest-picked lettuce, but with more personality: “It provides the crunch, but there’s just more body.” Collins, along with Mike Williamson and Tony Ethier, founded Cascadia in 2019. A former marine geologist who shifted to business, Collins was exploring possible investments for the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance when he came across one that seemed too good to be true. Harvesting seaweed would create jobs, generate revenue, and provide a new food source. And unlike almost any other industry, it isn’t just carbon-neutral: seaweed aquaculture is actually climate-positive.
Seaweed naturally extracts carbon from the water. When excess parts of a seaweed plant are shed—a normal part of the growing process—that kelp can float down into the bottom of the ocean, bringing with it all the carbon it’s absorbed. Once the excess seaweed gets one kilometre down, that carbon is essentially removed from our atmosphere for centuries, Australian research scientist Tim Flannery has explained in a TED Talk.
Cascadia is one of several international seaweed farms involved in the Oceans 2050 research project, which aims to prove the crop’s significance in fighting climate change. Collins notes it was a natural choice for Cascadia—named for the mountain range that spans the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia down to northern California—to partner with Nuu-chah-nulth Seafood, a local company run by representatives from several First Nations. “If you have folks that are living and working on the coastline, and their ancestors have been living and working on the coastline, they have an inherent understanding of the environment, both good and bad.”
“It has tremendous climate-positive results,” Collins says. “It's really, really important that we understand how to feed people sustainably.”
Nuu-chah-nulth has been interested in seaweed cultivation for years, says president Larry Johnson, who also goes by Anii-tsa-chist, the name given to him by his uncle, Toquaht First Nation Chief Bert Mack. It means “Keeper of the Sea.”
“It was always our plan to become a vertically integrated seafood company that was diversified,” Johnson explains. “Cascadia is a great partner. We understand each other, we have a shared vision.” And that vision involves creating coastal jobs, “(S)o that people can move back to our homelands that have sustained us for thousands of years.” Another significant component for Nuu-chah-nulth is Cascadia’s focus on sustainability.
“We've always looked at things in a holistic way. We want to heal the land, we want to look after and restore the land so that it will be there to produce wealth and resources, where our people are going forward. And when I say going forward, I'm talking about seven generations on,” he says.
In its first year, Cascadia focused on producing agrifeed. Replacing traditional cow feed with seaweed-based products significantly cut down on methane emissions, Collins explains. But last summer, they announced they were shifting to food for people—and they have some pretty impressive ambitions for what’s next.
For months now, the company has been working with local chefs and food scientists to develop a wide range of products. According to Desirée Dupuis, Cascadia’s VP of Sales and Marketing, they’re starting with the crispy snack sheets that are already a staple at many health food stores. But they plan to go way beyond that. There will be crackers and chips, potentially a seaweed jerky, fresh salads, food bowls, frozen entrées, condiments, and maybe even a burger made from seaweed.
“Our proprietary seaweed seasoning salts are definitely going to give that Everything Bagel seasoning a run for its money,” she says. “We've made hummus, guacamole, and dips with it, and it just brings forward the saltiness with a bit of sweet and crunchy.”
The development phase has been a fun process, although there’s been something of a learning curve. “It is a bit of a novel product,” acknowledges Dupuis. “Even experienced food scientists haven't worked with seaweed before.” That means there have been some eye-opening moments in the test kitchen. “One of the biggest surprises is how versatile seaweed is, and how much it absorbs other flavors,” she explains. “When added to other foods, like burgers, it brings a lot of moisture and really helps to bring out the other flavours of the ingredients.”
There are over 600 kinds of seaweed in the Pacific Ocean alone.
But for now Cascadia is working with only two varieties, sugar kelp and alaria. They have slightly different flavour profiles: sugar kelp is a little sweeter, and it borrows more from the flavours around it a bit more than alaria. Seaweed is also a healthy option: it’s a source of protein, magnesium, iodine, and calcium. It’s good for the immune system, and for brain function, and is low in carbs and sugar. Brown kelp, for instance, is an anti-inflammatory. Collins states for that reason, Cascadia also wants to get into nutraceuticals supplements in the future.
Dupuis says she’s looking forward to Canadians starting to accept seaweed as a food for the future and to be able to consume it in a variety of ways. Two decades ago, many people thought it was weird to eat sushi, she points out—today, it couldn’t be more mainstream. And sushi, of course, contains seaweed. “Indigenous people, Asian cultures, even some European cultures have been eating seaweed for centuries,” she notes. “I think there’s just a shift that needs to happen in people's minds.”
Collins says Cascadia doesn’t worry at all about competition. In fact, they hope more companies will start harvesting seaweed. “This is a nascent industry, and one company does not make a sector. We need more,” he insists. “We're very open and collaborative, and that's going to make this thing fly.”