Sean Den Adel and his fiance Skye Steritz live in Cordova and are among a handful of small-scale seaweed farmers in Prince William Sound.
They’ve been harvesting mostly sugar kelp on about five acres of water since 2022. Den Adel said he’s excited about the future of the industry, which he sees as ecologically and economically sustainable for Prince William Sound.
“I really do think it’s going to create a lot more jobs in coastal communities, and it already is doing that,” he said.
But in order to grow the industry, Cordova’s kelp farmers need a way to process seaweed locally.
Prince William Sound has experienced five fisheries disasters since 2016, in part because of climate change. These disasters put a major economic strain on coastal communities. Growers like Den Adel are hoping seaweed can help bolster and diversify the region’s economy.
Cale Herschleb, another Cordova-based kelp farmer with Royal Ocean Kelp Company, has commercially fished for salmon in Prince William Sound for the last 15 years. The fisheries disasters have been challenging and the future of salmon fishing feels uncertain, he said, and growing kelp makes sense as an off-season occupation.
“I’ve been looking for a way to diversify and still use the [fishing] equipment that is pretty expensive, try to keep the boat working through the winter,” he said. “I just view it as a way to diversify and do something positive for the environment.”
Den Adel’s and Steritz’s kelp farm is called Noble Ocean Farms. Den Adel said eventually they would like to hire employees, but for now the two of them run the entire operation. They produce kelp to be made into seaweed snacks.
Den Adel said they’re facing one big problem with growing their business: there’s no reliable way to process seaweed in Cordova.
“We don’t really have anywhere to process right now, which is a huge, huge conundrum for us.”
Specifically, there’s nowhere to dry large quantities of seaweed, which means Noble Ocean Farms is shipping out their kelp wet.
Kelp is about 90% water, which means it’s a lot heavier to ship when it’s fresh than when it’s dry.
“When we’re just selling wet kelp frozen, the energy costs are high. The shipping costs are high,” Den Adel said.
Alysha Cypher, a marine biologist at the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, is trying to solve this processing problem for local kelp farmers.
“There’s fish processors here and they are interested [in seaweed], but until there’s a larger market, it’s not worth it for them to buy any equipment or get involved,” Cypher said.
Right now the kelp-farming market is tiny. According to Den Adel, there are only seven permitted growers in Prince William Sound, and only five of them are actively farming. They’re limited by the lack of processing capacity.
But Cypher recently obtained a $380,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to pilot a seaweed-drying project in Cordova over the next three years. Electricity to power dehydrators is expensive off the road system, so Cypher’s idea is to use waste heat from the Cordova Electric Co-op’s diesel generators to dry the seaweed.
“It’s like 115 degrees on the pad,” Cypher said. “The building — you can see the heat billowing off of it.”
The co-op offered to let Cypher and her team build an insulated structure on their property and pipe in waste heat from the diesel generators.
“Then most likely what we’ll do is we’ll tumble seaweed in big tumblers to see if we can get seaweed dry enough that it’s a shelf-stable product,” Cypher said.
She and her team have a grant period of three years to figure out if they can make this seaweed drying project work. Noble Ocean Farms and Herschleb’s Royal Ocean Kelp Company each agreed to donate a thousand pounds of this year’s harvest to test the process.
If the project is successful, Cypher envisions that seaweed farmers could form a cooperative to process their harvests together with the waste heat method.
Herschleb is hopeful that this project will encourage fish processors in Prince William Sound to start investing in mariculture.
“We have reached out to the local processors and tried to get them interested,” he said. “Maybe something like this would help them see that it’s viable.”
Cypher and her team will spend the winter designing the waste heat drying system. She hopes they’ll be able to test-dry their first batch of Cordova seaweed this spring.