The smell of the ocean and the boom of loud upbeat music filled the Barnacle Foods warehouse as employees donned hairnets and used large kitchen knives to slice away at the thick and tubular bull kelp rolling down the converter belt.
The kelp, the same type that you sometimes find washed up on a beach or tickling your toes on a swim, was in the process of being chopped, grounded down and used as a key ingredient in everyday food products like hot sauces, salsa, seasonings and BBQ sauce.
“It’s kind of an unusual ingredient, but we put it in familiar everyday foods that taste really good and are easy to enjoy, and it’s a great way to introduce people to kelp,” said Matthew Kern, a co-founder of Barnacle Foods, a Juneau-based company with a mission to “bring seaweed into people’s everyday diet.”
The company was founded by Kern and Lia Heifetz in 2016, but using kelp as an ingredient in everyday foods wasn’t a new thing to them. Kern said they had been adding kelp to their everyday diet for years, sharing their creations with friends and family who watched them refine their creations until they knew “Oh, we can make this stuff taste really good,” Kern said. From there, an idea to share their creations beyond friends and family was born.
“We all were really interested in food preservation and working towards resiliency in Southeast Alaska in food security, and we thought kelp would be a really great ingredient. There’s a lot of kelp in Alaska and it’s an up-and-coming industry that we think holds a lot of potentials.”
Not only can this seaweed become a staple ingredient to elevate taco night or add a spice of life to your popcorn, mariculture farming — specifically the farming of seaweed — holds the potential to play a pivotal role in fighting climate change. The mundane ocean weed can decrease carbon emission, grapple with ocean acidification, be used for edible consumption and can even be converted into biofuel.
Juneau uses fossil fuels to provide 77% of its major energy sources, according to a new Juneau-specific climate report published Monday. But, at the current rate of consumption fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal will only last 30-70 years, according to a 2019 study by Stanford’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. With demand for alternative energy sources, food security and renewable resources continuing to rise, seaweed could be a means to help combat these issues.
While eating seaweed isn’t new in Southeast Alaska, aquatic farming of plants or shellfish is only in its third decade of being permitted across Alaska via the Aquatic Farm Act commissioned by the Alaska Department of Fish and Games. The industry has seen exponential growth in the state and is expected to see even more growth according to Flip Pryor who serves as the Aquaculture Section Chief of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game.
“The demand is up and I think it’s just going to keep going up because they’re finding more and more uses for it,” Pryor said. “There’s potentially use it as biofuels and that’s a huge improvement. I think I wouldn’t see why anyone wouldn’t jump on that opportunity.”
According to Pryor, mariculture farming began to make headway when former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker created the Alaska Mariculture Task Force to boost the industry and understand the potential of commercial-scale aqua-farming in the state. The program sunsetted last June but has since been replaced by the Alaska Mariculture Alliance organization which follows similarly in its footsteps and has more than 100 members across the state.
The industry has also seen much federal and state funding as it is projected to contribute largely to Alaska’s economy and broaden the scope of Alaskan seafood across the global seafood market. As a top 60 finalist for the U.S Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better grant in late 2021, the industry is already looking at pocketing $500,000 to put toward furthering the industry’s growth across the state. But, it is also in the running to win a $50 million grant as well, which is still pending.
This year, 20 applications for Alaska aquatic farm permits were received by the state by the April 30 deadline. Pryor said even though this is not the first time there was a push to develop the mariculture industry in Alaska, he thinks the industry was making its way toward becoming more and more commercialized across the state — that is until the pandemic hit and halted much of the mariculture operations across Southeast Alaska.
“COVID did affect the market — the restaurants shut down, there wasn’t that demand. Also, people were kind of locking down so they just kind of sat on it until the market came back. And you know, now they’re starting to pick up again to keep things moving. But there was a slowdown there,” he said. “But kelp is coming back strong, the market kind of doubles in value every year. It’s huge money and if it keeps growing and growing, bigger players are going to start coming in — so it’s going to keep going that way.”
And Kern agrees. When the pandemic first hit, he said the company experienced some “uncertain times” but continued to work hard to build an internet presence to sell their products beyond Southeast Alaska. And it worked.
“Things have changed around Barnacle really dramatically compared to the early days,” he said. “In the beginning, we would make a few hundred jars a day, and now our production is more like 2000 plus jars of product we’re making per day. And have a staff of about 12 people on the team of year-round employees.”
The company has also since grown to sell its products across the global market in just its six-year stint and Kern said he’s hopeful for the future of the company.
A promising future
Even with the pandemic slowing things down, Alaska had a 232% increase in seaweed sold in 2020, according to a study done by Melissa Good with Alaska Sea Grant.
That increase included more than 265 tons of the seaweed species like bull kelp, ribbon kelp and sugar kelp sold and valued at almost $300,000. But, that is far from its projected potential, said Julie Decker, a former chair and task force member for the Alaska Mariculture Task Force.
“There was a little bit of a lull in the new applications that came in during that time and we did see a dip in the amount of applications coming forward, but in 2022 it came back up again and is the highest ever seen since the early 2000s — that’s good.”
Decker, who now works as the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, a partner of Alaska Mariculture Alliance, said there has been a big push for mariculture farming in recent years, and she is already starting to see anticipation building in the state for what is to come.
“We’re really still just at the beginning of the potential of the industry’s growth, and we’re seeing a lot of capacity building and anticipation,” she said. “We are seeing a bunch of people within the state or traveling into the state for opportunities in this industry — that’s good.