Bill Collins, chairperson of Cascadia Seaweed, enjoys a piece of sugar kelp. The company recently won at the Vancouver Island Business Excellence Awards (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Sidney company tastes sweet success with sugar kelp

Cascadia Seaweed is experiencing rapid growth after launching six months ago

A Sidney company wants to get in on the wet ground floor of the seaweed-as-food industry, while saving the environment and creating jobs along the way.

Early peer feedback for Cascadia Seaweed has been positive as the company won the Ocean Products category at the Vancouver Island Business Excellence Awards held last month.

Formally launched six months ago, the company grows sugar kelp at two aquatic farms in Barkley Sound, where the company has struck agreements with two local First Nations, the Huu-ay-aht and Uchucklesaht First Nations. The company has also recently reached an agreement with six other partners including five First Nations to develop a food processing facility in Port Alberni.

RELATED: Sugar kelp partnership sweetens food hub proposal on Vancouver Island

Company chairperson Bill Collins said the the award recognizes the growing recognition of seaweed as a commercial product in North America. “It’s really poised to grow, and we are trying to ride the wave,” he said.

The numbers certainly point in that direction. This year, the two farms harvested 90 tons of seaweed. Next year, it will be 900 tons, as the company has already expanded to meet growing demand. “We are growing like mad. We are growing to be, as our motto says, the largest provider of seaweed in North America.”

Seaweed has multiple uses, starting with food, as the best and highest value use, said Collins. “It’s washed, it’s sliced, it’s blanched, and some seasoning is added to it, and that’s it,” he said. Other uses for seaweed, which can also be dried and used for various food, include as animal feed, pet food, various kinds of industrial and beauty products, and fertilizer. This said, Cascadia wants to focus on becoming a supplier for food service companies.

Collins said the idea behind the company started a couple of years ago, and formally launched six months ago. A trained marine geologist, Collins founded the company with three other individuals.

The president and CEO of Cascadia Seaweed is Mike Williamson, former commanding officer of CFB Esquimalt. “His experience in managing large projects and managing a large number of people is really important for Casacadia as we start to build out and grow.”

Tony Ethier, who spent his entire career in off-shore services, deploying and installing equipment, serves as the company’s chief operating officer. “He is your man, when it comes to putting farms in, and seeing that they stay there,” said Collins.

Steven Cross, meanwhile, is an associate professor and director of the Coastal Aquaculture Research & Training (CART) Network at the University of Victoria.

So how did a marine geologist, submariner, oceanographer, and academic get the idea of growing and selling seaweed?

In short, ice cream.

Working with the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance, Collins researched opportunities for local businesses to leverage Vancouver Island as a competitive advantage, and quickly identified aquaculture as one.

“What I found in opening up the broader question of things to be grown in the sea, seaweed came to light and I had a long conversation with Dr. Stephen Cross, who has written many articles on the opportunities for the growing kelp on Vancouver Island.” Within a hour of speaking with Ross, Collins settled on seaweed, partly because he had earlier heard about a global shortage of carrageenan, an ice-cream ingredient extracted from seaweed. Some 630 types of seaweed grow naturally on Vancouver Island.

“My final comment to him was, ‘Dr. Cross, if we grow kelp, could it solve that the world’s ice cream problem?’ And he said, ‘absolutely, we could,’” said Collins. “I thought then that is a marvellous opportunity.”

Other global trends also play in the company’s favour. They include the world’s growing population is expected to hit 9.8 billion by 2050 from the current level of 7.7 billion, calls for more aquatic-sourced food instead of land-sourced food, as per demands from the World Resources Institute, and demand for various seaweed-related products far outstripping supply.

“The other idea that spurred the idea was around the idea of plant-based protein,” said Collins in pointing to the minimal requirements of growing seaweed, with a rope strung between two vertical lines drawn taught by an anchor and a float.

“You put your kelp babies on that line in December, January, and you go away,” said Collins. “You don’t water them, you don’t feed them, thanks to the natural light coming through the beautiful waters and the nutrients that pass by as currents move along. In six months, you have per farm, 45 tons of kelp.”

Collins said the company chose Sidney as its headquarters because the people behind it live in and around the community, and because it offers access to an underutilized talent pool. The company currently works out of rented space that it shares with other businesses, but is moving into a new office in the near future, and is rapidly expanding its actual farms, working in cooperation with local First Nations. Their buy-in is crucial, he said in pointing to the tensions that have in past sprung up between First Nations and fish-farm operators.

Collins says that the industry also benefits the environment. “Ultimately, we service this ecosystem,” he said. When seaweed grows, it sequesters carbon-dioxide as it grows. Seaweed falling off the line while growing also serves as habitat and food for other creatures. “Plus they are taking that carbon and dropping it to the seabed,” he said. “So this industry will be available for carbon offsets. Seaweed also removes excessive nutrients that deprive oceans of oxygen, he added. “That is how seaweed grows. That is what they grow on.”

Overall, Seaweed Cascadia has entered new, but potentially highly lucrative territory. “Our idea is to be the facilitator of the build-out of this sector,” said Collins. “It doesn’t really exist as a sector today. My prediction is that it could be a $1 billion contribution in terms of Gross Domestic Product for Vancouver Island [based on food prices].”

Obstacles remain though. “Now the product is being prepared for what is an Asian taste,” said Collins. “The cuisine and the culinary delivery research hasn’t been done, so that it could appeal to North American tastes. But it’s only a matter of time.”

RELATED: Colwood, Saanich finalists for B.C. small business awards

The biographies of the four founders also raise an interesting question: why would four individuals, accomplished by all accounts in their respective fields, go through the pains of starting a new company?

“We saw an opportunity to re-invigorate, rejuvenate coastal Vancouver Island, indeed Coastal British Columbia,” said Collins. “We see an opportunity to do our small part to address food security and we are putting people back onto water to execute an industry that has not been done to scale. We want to do our bit for the environment, and just because we are in our senior years in terms of our business expertise, doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to the planet.”


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wolfgang.depner@peninsulanewsreview.com

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