Sea-to-table movement takes root with Alaska’s growing kelp industry

Matt Kern harvests wild bull kelp. (Photo courtesy of Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz.)

In February of last year, Governor Walker signed an administrative order to help jumpstart mariculture, or sea farming, in the state. One Juneau couple is whipping up a recipe to make local kelp an enticing business and snack. They’re part of a growing number of startups that see Alaska seaweed as a marketable food.

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There’s an aquatic plant that’s become a big part of Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz’s relationship.

“It’s basically all we talk about it,” Heifetz said with a laugh. “Every day of the week. Every night of the week. Every weekend.”

Kern and Heifetz are dedicating so much of their time to seaweed because they’ve been laying the groundwork for a new business.

“Kelp Salsa,” Kern said. “It’s made from predominantly from bull kelp that we harvest from around Juneau.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn’t have a formalized process for collecting wild kelp for commercial use — at least not yet. So, the couple forages under an experimental permit.

A lot of work and late nights goes into whipping up a batch of salsa.

Matt popped the lid off a small mason jar and opened a bag of corn chips.

“Today we have a green salsa verde,” Kern explained. “And another flavor called campfire that has roasted garlic and onions.”

Kelp salsa at Juneau’s public market. (Photo courtesy of Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz)

Both jars of salsa contain lots of minced bull kelp. I scoop my chip into the campfire flavor. It’s tart from the seaweed and mildly spiced.

The couple recently received a $40,000 Path to Prosperity grant, which is for Southeast entrepreneurs to help grow their business. Last year, they made about 2,000 jars of salsa, mostly cooked up in their home kitchen and sold at the local public market. But they want to eventually expand distribution beyond Juneau.

Having access to enough foraged seaweed for that expansion could be difficult, but a California-based startup might be able to help. Blue Evolution is looking at the prospect of seaweed farming in Alaska. Right now, the company grows the plant in Mexico, dries it and turns it into pasta.

“They were really interested in doing domestic production,” Tamsen Peeples said. She’s employed by Blue Evolution and works on the science of seaweed farming at the University of Alaska Southeast, as a marine biologist.

Peeples said coastal states like Maine are already kelp farming, but developing it in Alaska has its advantages.

“Alaska has bountiful amounts of coastline obviously, clean water,” Peeples said. “As an Alaskan, I think it’s a great opportunity for individuals who otherwise in the winter are laying low between commercial fishing and tourism.”

But one thing Alaska doesn’t have is easy access to kelp seed. The department of fish and game says you can only farm with plants native to the region, and that’s where Peeples’ research comes in. She’s been working on propagating seed from local kelp spores.

“In order for this industry to grow, we’re going to have to get a number of other hatcheries to come online,” Peeples said.

A new House bill could make it easier for more nonprofit hatcheries to receive state loans. Even though those wouldn’t apply to a company like Blue Evolution, Peeples thinks it’s a good thing.

So far, Peeples has successfully incubated varieties like sugar and ribbon kelp. And those plants are growing in the waters of Kodiak and Ketchikan. Blue Evolution will buy the seaweed back in the spring.

As their kelp salsa business grows, Matt Kern and Lia Heifetz  say they’re also interested.

“We plan to be sourcing directly from farms in the future,” Heifetz said.

They say, for them, it’s not about building a seaweed snack empire.

“This wasn’t a huge day-to-day leap in our lives … to go from doing it on our home scale,” Kern said. “‘Because this is what we’d be doing with our time anyways.”

That means building their business sustainably, making thousands of jars of kelp salsa and sharing it with friends.

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