Putting sea debris to a new use

[USA] Charlotte Huntley’s vision of a more organic Southwest Florida started during one of the red tide algae blooms that have plagued Gulf-front communities for a decade.

The red tide bloom caused a rank mixture of seaweed and dead fish to float into Sarasota’s shores.

Marina owners were paying as much as $600 per load for her to fill up her 19-foot open workboat with this sea debris, haul it out into the Gulf, and dump it.

Huntley, with her 24-foot work skiff, was glad to oblige. The daughter of a Cortez fisherman, she relies on the Gulf for her livelihood. With a crew of two, she tends to roughly 500 stone crab traps for much of the year. Removing seaweed from docks and dumping it became a profitable sideline.

“I thought, there has got to be a better use for this,” Huntley said.

Now, instead of dumping the seaweed out in the open water, Huntley has learned to turn it into a potent “compost tea” that is great for the yard, the garden or the golf course.

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Huntley says it would be relatively easy to roll the same system out around Florida. In virtually every beachfront community, workers are paid to rake seaweed off the beaches. This considerable amount of organic matter is typically hauled to a landfill, which involves fees.

If there were one of Huntley’s sites nearby, the material could be deposited there for free, to be turned into liquid gold. All that would be needed to start is a shed to house a few big tanks, seaweed and rainwater.

Mix gently and stir frequently. A few weeks later, you’ve got what Huntley has cleverly named the “SeaLution.”

This spring, she decided to try for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s Blue Economy innovation challenge grant, with the grand prize being $375,000 to be dished out in mid-November.

On Thursday, the community foundation will announce that it has selected five finalists out of the 25 teams that completed applications for the grant money. Each finalist will receive $25,000 to develop their idea more completely by Oct. 30. With perhaps less drama than “Shark Tank,” the finalists will present their prototypes during the first week of November.

With its Blue Economy initiative, the foundation wants to nurture marine-related projects that are sustainable at the same time that they create new jobs. Each entrant, like SeaLutions, has submitted a grant proposal explaining their concept, and has posted a video at gulfcoastchallenge.org.

SeaLutions micro-business

Huntley, operating with help from her two deck hands, already has turned SeaLutions into a micro-business.

Their main business is tending those stone crab traps.

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But she has six tanks holding 275 gallons each as her brewery. They are labeled as to what mixture went into it and when it is expected to mature.

Huntley and her teammates met the Herald-Tribune at Tide Tables restaurant and marina in Cortez this week.

Using just a pitchfork, it took her only a few minutes to collect enough seaweed from the boat ramp to make a 55-gallon drum of SeaLutions. She found a catfish head floating in the shallows at the end of the ramp, and threw that on top for good measure.

Huntley gets her products tested, and can deliver various mixes — heavy on Sargasso, with its tiny fruit, or heavy on the turtle grass and eel grass that float out toward sea from the flats.

The mix depends on whether the gardener is going for blooms or green.

“You do 50 percent seaweed and then you do 50 percent rainwater,” she said.

Even without stirring the pot, the material will ferment itself into a pure brown liquid with very little residue in about three months, Huntley said. Stirring just speeds up the microbial process.

It’s not a totally untapped market, although Huntley believes she is the only person with a commercial operation on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Neptune’s Harvest in Gloucester Massachusetts, is a division of Ocean Crest Seafoods, which produces fish filets and other products. What’s left over are the heads, skeletons, scales and fins.

Typically, those remains were being hauled out by fishing boats and dumped into the sea. Starting in 1986, Neptune’s Harvest began turning it into liquid fertilizer. On its website, the company prices a quarter of liquid fertilizer made from fish and seaweed for $28.

Huntley’s team includes real estate broker Lance Spotts of Holmes Beach and Suncoast Waterkeeper, a non-profit run by Terri K. Wonder.

“It is a really good sustainable business,” Wonder said.

In addition, turning these otherwise wasted products of the sea into fertilizer can create jobs.

“There are a lot of these fishermen who are out of work,” Spotts said. “She would be putting them back to work.”

For her part, Huntley likes to use the analogy of mass produced eggs vs. eggs from cage-free roaming chickens.

“All these people who own golf courses and all these landscaping companies, they all pay for this fertilizer, but they don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “They don’t know what the option is.

“I can make your grass just as green.”

 

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