20 September 2023

Could kelp farming be a golden opportunity for the South Coast?

| Zoe Cartwright
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Chris Ride of Auskelp hopes Eden will be the home of a world-first way of kelp farming

Christopher Ride of Auskelp hopes Eden will be the home of a world-first way of kelp farming. Photo: Auskelp.

The ocean has always supported South Coast communities, from whaling to fishing, oyster leases to tourism.

Now, entrepreneur Chris Ride hopes it could provide a new industry for the region – and a new tool to fight the climate crisis.

The former IT business owner became fascinated by the potential of kelp to provide food, fertiliser, fuel and bioplastics after watching the documentary 2040.

“It was about what the world might look like in 20 years’ time, and it had kelp farms as the industry of the future,” Christopher said.

“They provide fish habitat, protect the environment, sequester carbon and require zero input.

“I’ve watched climate change unfold my entire life, I’ve watched the ocean and kelp forests change, and I thought you know what, let’s see if we can do it.”

He landed on golden kelp, native to the South Coast of NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, as a potential winner.

In the wake of the Black Summer bushfires he saw another benefit of kelp farming for the region – it’s an industry that’s fireproof.

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But investing in an industry of the future isn’t easy – the regulatory framework to support it and the data about how it works, do not exist yet.

Kelp has never been grown commercially in NSW, and when it has been grown, it’s been by universities who need it for research.

Christopher and his team propose growing it in open water, something that is also unheard of.

“Five years ago we thought let’s see if we can get a test lease, do the work, bring in some experts and see if we can do something we can be proud of and our grandkids can be proud of and have a positive impact on the world,” he said.

“So we went to NSW Fisheries and said we’re interested in getting a lease to do some testing.

“You start the process and think it’s relatively simple but the more work we did the more complicated it became. A lot of the times there weren’t even forms for kelp, and we were told to submit the application as if we were farming oysters, but it’s very different.

“We just thought if we can’t do something about climate change now we never will, and it just made us more determined.”

After a significant investment of time and money, they had a stroke of luck.

Some mussel farmers in Twofold Bay had leases so old that kelp was listed as a permitted purpose, and they were happy to allow Auskelp to put some test lines in the water.

With a team of scientists from around the world they were able to develop a program to breed plants on ropes in the open ocean, using only local kelp.

So far, it’s been a success.

“We’ve been told it won’t work; every time we go out there I wonder if it’s all going to be dead,” Christopher said.

“But it is working.

“The blades grew 55 cm in length in 115 days. That’s more than five millimeters a day.

“They’re so beautiful, you hold it in your hand and it’s amazing to see. There were no inputs at all – the ocean just did its thing.”

Fifty-six-day-old baby kelp growing on test lines in Twofold Bay NSW

Fifty-six-day-old baby kelp growing on test lines in Twofold Bay NSW. Photo: Auskelp.

While Twofold Bay is not identical to Disaster Bay, where Christopher hopes to get approval for an initial kelp farm, it’s a start, and helps the team gather some of the evidence they need to meet regulatory requirements.

Another stroke of luck was the involvement of the Blue Economy CRC and University of Wollongong, and funds from the Regional NSW – Business Case and Strategy Development Fund.

The CRC grant program supports industry-led collaborations between industry, researchers and the community, and has partnered with the university to support sustainable ocean business projects.

Associate Professor with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong, Michelle Voyer, says she believes kelp farming has real potential to reinvigorate the economies and ecosystems of the South Coast.

“We’ve seen a big decline of kelp on the South Coast and there is a lot of community concern around that,” she said.

“So kelp farming could bring ecosystem benefits along with broader community benefits like jobs and businesses.

“A lot of coastal communities have a strong heritage of maritime industries and primary industries which has really declined over the past 30 or 40 years and been replaced by tourism, but that brings vulnerability into the economic makeup.

“Aquaculture and wild harvest can operate in a complementary way with tourism, such as food tourism and producing boutique local products – and not everyone is interested in or suited to tourism!

“One of the things that’s super interesting and exciting is not thinking about these farms in isolation but how they link up to different innovative businesses already on the South Coast.

“So in Jervis Bay there is already a business looking to make plastic out of kelp.

“It’s not a farm just sitting out there in isolation, there are a whole range of spinoffs that could develop and grow thorough this.”

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With the funding from Regional NSW Michelle and her team will be assessing potential social and cultural impacts of kelp farming in the Eden region.

She acknowledges that with such a new industry there are a lot of unanswered questions.

“We don’t know how the farms will respond to weather events, how they will interact with marine wildlife like whales, there are definitely questions to be answered and that’s part of the challenge of this process,” she said.

“Until it has gone through rigorous environmental assessment process there is not a lot of opportunity to try out different methods or areas to find minimal impact, so that is difficult.”

To get more community feedback on the project, an information session and research workshop on ‘Seaweed Farming in Disaster Bay’, and a drop-in session, will be held.

These events will allow the project team chances to listen and learn from local community experiences and aspirations, and the results will form advice to industry and government partners.

The workshop will run from 4:30 – 7 pm, on Thursday 14 September at the Eden RSL Memorial Hall, with light refreshments provided.

The Wondboyn drop-in session will run from 10 am – 2 pm, on Friday (15 September) at the Wonboyn RFS Station on Gleeson Road.

Find out more about the drop-in session here, or register for the workshop here.

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