Food & Drink

Sea to shining snack: Seattle’s seaweed syndicate

Hot superfood kelp has arrived in Seattle by way of an unexpected treat

By Stefanie Ellis April 19, 2023

BDSF Manager Charlie Delius leads the annual kelp harvest in Hood Canal

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Travis Bettinson wants people to fall in love with kelp. His organic, gluten-free, and vegan puffed kelp snacks, Seacharrones, hit the market last March with a mission to create a sustainable product that bucks the stereotype that seaweed can’t be crave-worthy.

With consumers a lot less salty about the idea of sea-based snacks, thanks to kelp pickles, hot sauces, ketchup, burgers, and seasoning salts lining grocery store shelves with more regularity, his mission may no longer be a hard sell.

With the familiar air-crunch of pork rinds and flavors like umami, salt & pepper, and Korean BBQ, Bettinson’s kelp non-junk “junk” food has managed to mimic the sins of familiar fried food with the health benefits of a superfood rich in antioxidant minerals such as zinc and manganese.

Bettinson is chef and recipe developer for Blue Dot Kitchen, the retail arm of Washington’s only commercial kelp farm, Blue Dot Sea Farms (BDSF). The approximately 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of kelp (brown seaweed) the farm brings in each year from its five acres in Hood Canal all go to making Seacharrones. Additional kelp is sourced from farms in Maine and Alaska. Bettinson was operating a catering and private chef service when he heard a podcast about kelp farming that changed everything.

“I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “It has high nutritional value, is incredibly flavorful, and grows in conjunction with shellfish. I made contact with BDSF, and we were able to found Blue Dot Kitchen together. We wanted to create a product that would get seaweed to the people in the main aisles of the grocery stores.”

He and colleagues, Joth Davis and Jon Kroman — cofounders of BDSF — appreciate that kelp is more than just the raw material for creative food products. Kelp has the potential to make both oceans and shellfish populations healthier. They grow their seaweed alongside shellfish, producing what they call “indigo” oysters, which are sold to restaurants and the general public.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest injects an estimated $270 million per year into the region’s economy and employs more than 3,200 people, primarily in coastal communities. Kroman notes that seaweed and oysters are both sustainable foods that can be farmed with the same resources in the same place at the same time.

“Doing it this way supports marine ecology, enhances water quality and creates habitat for Salmonids and more.”

Seaweed also absorbs much more carbon dioxide than land-based plants. In 2020, BDSF’s kelp crops removed more than a ton of carbon, along with nitrogen, which contributes to harmful algae blooms in the northern part of Hood Canal, just outside Port Gamble, where the farm is based. Land-based farming requiring lots of water and space, while sea-based kelp farming offers an additional benefit in that no pesticides or fertilizers are needed.

Kelp also transfers carbon from the ocean, where it contributes to acidification to the land to create nutrient-rich soil amendments, defined as coming from something that was alive (inorganic amendments are mined or man-made).

In 2017, in partnership with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, the company donated 14,000 pounds of its sugar kelp to Sky Root Farm on Whidbey Island, which University of Washington Professor Eli Wheat owns. Together with Wheat and Meg Chadsey of Washington Sea Grant, Davis is collaborating on a new project to investigate the use of seaweed for organic soil amendments.

“We want to become a model for how people operate seaweed farms in an environmentally responsible way.”

While Washington is a relatively small player in global algae production — China, India, and South Korea are world leaders — Kroman notes that commercial development of other farms across the United States is robust. Atlantic Sea Farms in Maine, for instance — the first commercially viable seaweed farm in the U.S. when it was founded in 2009 — harvests more than a million pounds of seaweed annually.

Running a kelp farm requires a lot more than just setting up a rope and planting seeds. Many local Native American tribes have treaties reserving their rights to fish in “usual and accustomed” spots, where fish like salmon, steelhead, and halibut are used for subsistence as well as commerce.

Tribes are comanagers of the fisheries along with the state and federal government, and participate in management decisions, including who shares the waters. BDSF operates under a lease from the Washington Department of Natural Resources and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which requires tribal consultation and input before anything can be issued or renewed.

Bettinson acknowledges the deep history of seaweed in Native cultures for a variety of uses, including recipes and medicine, but adds that seaweed is still in its nascency in the U.S. That’s rapidly changing as a market infrastructure emerges, and Washington, with its robust shellfish population, could become a national leader. Seaweed can also be used in numerous industries, including as alternative fuels and bioplastics.

Travis Bettinson inspects a kelp frond that will go from sea to snack

Photo by Justin Huguet

Bettinson says seaweed will continue to grow in popularity and is well on it way to becoming an “impactful industry.”

“It’s a moral imperative in our current times that those who have the ability to do so act accordingly to improve food systems and the environment, and create a more circular economy,” he says. “The planet needs help. We’re helping in the ways we can. I’ve chosen seaweed.”

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