Farming seaweed is a family affair for Michael Graham

[USA] Not all edible produce is grown in the soil or on trees. Sometimes, it’s grown in water. In this case, it’s grown in tanks of natural seawater. Welcome to Monterey Bay Seaweeds, situated next to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). It was founded by Michael Graham, Ph.D., and is operated by him and his family.

While the business is not yet in the black, it is making big strides in the field of aquaculture. And it’s supplying chefs at restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula and north to San Francisco with three varieties of fresh, natural seaweed for their upscale dishes. Monterey Bay Seaweeds also are shipped to Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Dulse, sea lettuce and ogo seaweeds are being grown and marketed by Monterey Bay Seaweeds. They are full of antioxidants, calcium and a number of vitamins. They are high in protein and fiber as well.

Dulse is used to create broths for innovative cocktails and for traditional drinks such as an Ooh Mommy Bloody Mary. When fried it turns deep green and becomes crisp and is used for bar snacks.

 

Michael Graham holds a bunch of dulse, a red seaweed used by chefs on the Monterey Peninsula and elsewhere for upscale dishes. (Photo: Tom Leyde/For The Salinas Californian)

Ogo seaweed is used in Hawaiian poke (raw fish) salads. It’s also served raw in other kinds of salads, in cold broths with shellfish preparations and with ceviches or sushi. It turns bright orange when immersed in alcohol such as gin.

Green sea lettuce is delicate and has a bright emerald sheen. It can be used to wrap fish, and is added to salads, soups and cocktails. It is the newest addition to the farm’s products.

When properly refrigerated and cared for raw seaweeds will last for about a week, Graham said.

A closeup of dulse seaweed. (Photo: Tom Leyde/For The Salinas Californian)

Ogo seaweed is used in Hawaiian poke (raw fish) salads. It’s also served raw in other kinds of salads, in cold broths with shellfish preparations and with ceviches or sushi. It turns bright orange when immersed in alcohol such as gin.

Green sea lettuce is delicate and has a bright emerald sheen. It can be used to wrap fish, and is added to salads, soups and cocktails. It is the newest addition to the farm’s products.

When properly refrigerated and cared for raw seaweeds will last for about a week, Graham said.

A professor at the Center for Aquaculture at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Graham has an arrangement with the laboratories to operate the private business. It is the only land-based, seaweed-only aquaculture business in the United States.

His wife Erica, who has a background in the restaurant industry, does the seaweed deliveries, and the two oldest of the couple’s seven children, help with the farm’s maintenance. The farm grows only fresh, raw seaweeds, which are delivered in plastic bags filled with seawater.

“My wife really likes the fact they, we, can do it (the business) as a family,” Graham said.

The farm was started in 2015. It is situated on the site of the former Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. In October 1989 the laboratories were destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The site is now occupied by two other businesses besides the seaweed farm. Next to the seaweed farm’s tanks are tanks for Marine Laboratories students to raise marine animals and others for hatching abalone. Seawater is piped to the farm directly from the ocean.

“We’re doing a lot of science in seaweed farming,” said Graham, who has written more than 40 academic papers on giant kelp.

Michael Graham looks over growing tanks full of seaweeds and fresh seawater at Monterey Bay Seaweeds in Moss Landing. Graham operates the 2-year-old business with his family. (Photo: Tom Leyde/For The Salinas Californian)

 

Aquaculture is a huge industry worldwide. Most of it is mariculture, where marine life is grown in a marine environment. Besides seaweeds, these farms produce fish, crustaceans and mollusks.

Monterey Bay Seaweeds is an economical operation. The seawater is free, no lights are needed, just sunlight; there are no chemicals used and the seaweed is fast-growing.

Energy requirements are low at Monterey Bay Seaweeds. Most of the energy used, Graham said, comes from the elbow grease his high school-age sons put out scrubbing the inside of the tanks between seaweed crops.

Potentially, the seaweed farm could be located anywhere in the country. The main obstacle is creating artificial seawater.

“We’re not into volume right now,” Graham said. “We’re trying to do the science part of it.”

With seawater becoming more acidified due to climate change, the future of mariculture faces a serious challenge.

Acidification of seawater is a huge concern. When carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater chemical reactions occur that reduce its pH, carbonate ion concentration and saturation states of biologically important calcium carbonate minerals. this harms the skeletons and shells of sea creatures, including coral.

So land-based aquaculture using artificial seawater could be the wave of the future while scientists figure out how to solve acidification of the oceans.

The actual growing of the seaweed at the farm is fairly self-perpetuating because the seaweed grows so quickly. Take dulse, a brownish variant of seaweed with a bacon-like flavor. In one to two weeks it doubles in volume.

A 1,000-gallon tank of seawater can produce about 25 pounds of seaweed a week, or about 1,200 pounds a year.

The farm also is experimenting with growing sea grapes and nori seaweeds.

Graham, who has a Ph.D. in phycology (the study of algae) from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is also editor of The Journal of Phycology. He said he has learned a lot from the seaweed farming venture.

He thinks the farm will be moved from its present location in a couple of years.

“I won’t say it’s a cherished life, but I have a lot of fun coming to work,” he said.

And what about the future of seaweed farming?

“Salinas is the salad bowl of the world,” he said. “Why not the seaweed capital of the world?”

 

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