Kelp Can Save the World... If Only California Would Let It

How overburdened bureaucracies stand in the way of aquaculture entrepreneurs and researchers

Standing on a bluff in Santa Barbara, California, Dan Marquez pointed towards the ocean. “Just on the other side of the pier,” he said, “that’s my farm.” On the surface, it’s an unremarkable section of ocean, but under the waves there’s a kelp forest whose lease has Marquez’s name on it—but Marquez is stuck behind red tape. 

The state’s underfunded, understaffed, and dysfunctional regulatory departments are hampering the industry’s growth.

Over the years, kelp has been touted as humanity’s potential savior from climate change. A study in 2012, quoted over and over again, claimed: If 9% of the world’s oceans were covered in kelp farms, we could produce enough biofuel to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, provide 440 pounds of food per person (for 10 billion people), and bring the world’s C02 to pre-industrial levels.

Beyond futuristic hypotheticals, kelp has been called a superfood—super high in vitamins and minerals—some have even said that it’s giving kale a run for its money. There are chefs using it in smoothies and custards, making them tastier and more nutritious; some cosmetic companies are making soaps, serums, and perfumes from it, claiming it will cure a multitude of skin issues.

And for agriculture, it can be turned into both a fertilizer and livestock feed. In fact, feeding kelp to cows was shown to cut the animals’ methane release by 99 percent—a significant development when most of the methane in our atmosphere comes from livestock.

Despite the promise of this technology, California has done little to encourage its growth. In fact, the state’s underfunded, understaffed, and somewhat dysfunctional regulatory departments are hampering the industry’s growth.

Case in point: Marquez, who is the owner of PharmerSea, California’s only ocean-bottom kelp farm. Since acquiring the lease in January 2015, Marquez has been trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, unable to open his business, even though the past two lease holders had been using the site as a kelp research farm since the 1970s.

The frustrating process led Marquez to hire aquaculture consultant Mike Murphy, a former NOAA scientist who helped develop policies around aquaculture and marine protected areas.

Marquez, harvesting kelp by hand in Santa Barbara

“You’ll submit something and then you’ll wait. Weeks. Months. Several months,” Murphy said. “And it’s not because these people aren’t doing their jobs. It’s because they have too much to do.” 

Even simple adjustments, like transferring ownership of the lease, took more than 18 months for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to process.

Without having the lease in his name, Marquez was unable to start the rest of the process, which can take years and often comes with a five or six figure price tag, according to Randy Lovell, State Aquaculture Coordinator for Fish and Wildlife.

Lovell’s department is responsible for aquaculture throughout the entire state, which includes both inland and ocean farms for kelp, oysters, mussels, and fish. But it’s tough to call it a department when it has only one full-time staff member: Lovell himself, who is responsible for overseeing leasing within multiple aquaculture industries for the sixth largest economy in the world.

During Marquez’s leasing process, Lovell noted that they had to adjust their standard template (which is geared for shellfish) to suit the needs of a kelp farm. To do that, Lovell said, “It took months, in practice. In man-hours, it wasn’t that long.”

In short, he’s overwhelmed. And who can blame him?

Lovell has a handful of part-time staffers in other areas of Fish and Wildlife that help out from time to time. “But no one is dedicated to aquaculture full-time, other than myself,” Lovell said.

In 2016, Lovell’s one-man aquaculture program within the Department of Fish and Wildlife saw its largest budget increase in over a decade: from $138,000 to $170,000. But Lovell said that he needs at least $500,000 in additional funding to hire the staff needed for a well-functioning department.

For Marquez, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is merely the first stop to getting his business running. It’s only now, nearly two years after starting the process, that he’s able to move on to the next department: the California Coastal Commission, who look to be in the same overburdened ship.

Aquaculture consultant Mike Murphy, on the importance of aquaculture in California

As the LA Times reported in May, the Coastal Commission has been operating on a shoe-string budget for decades. And similar to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Commission has a five-person team with only one person dedicated to aquaculture permitting for the entire state.

Marquez expects to submit his initial proposal to Coastal Commission in the coming months and then, once again, he’ll play the waiting game.

After that, he will need approval from four more organizations: The Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the California State Lands Commission, and the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

Depending on their individual circumstances and needs, other applicants need the blessing of even more organizations, including: the California Department of Public Health, the California State Water Resource Control Board, and any local jurisdictions that may apply.

Any of those organizations can scrap the entire process and force an applicant to start over from the beginning, no matter how far along they may be. And right now, there is no official way to do the applications concurrently. They must be done one at a time—something Lovell frustratingly calls, “running the linear gauntlet.”

None of this is to say that these agencies or their policies are bad. Overwhelmingly, everyone interviewed felt like the regulations were necessary, but decried the organizations’ ability to function. And this isn’t new information. In 1989, a state Senate commission reported that the Coastal Commission lacked the funding to reliably accomplish its duties.

While the experience has been daunting for Marquez, this is his twilight career and he isn’t completely dependent on the farm for income. He can afford to wait. But Bernard Friedman, a mussel farmer in Santa Barbara, doesn’t have the same luxury. He’s been trying to expand the boundaries of his farm for five years now, trapped in limbo with the Coastal Commission. And like him, Jessica Dutton, the Director of Special Projects for the Wrigley Institute, doesn’t have time to wait either. She’s responsible for coordinating leases at the Institute. Over the past few years, she’s applied for two permits: One to research climate-change resistant shellfish and another to test deep-sea kelp farming techniques.

“It was a rough awakening for us academics,” Dutton said, referring to the permitting process. Each took about 18 months to complete—peachy compared it to Marquez’s experience—but Dutton says that even this timeframe is burdensome for researchers because grants often come with short timelines. In this case, only three years. 

With Dutton, Lovell tried to facilitate concurrent applications—an early implementation of what he calls an “interagency digital roundtable,” but Dutton’s permitting timeline wasn’t much better than other researchers. 

“If you spend a year and a half trying to get your permits, you’re losing valuable time for data collection,” Dutton said. By the time the grant is finished, scientists can be in a sticky situation. They often haven’t hit their research goals, but they’ve sunk so much time and money into permitting; it becomes a cost-benefit analysis due, in large part, to the excruciating permitting process.

“We began this process thinking we were going to do [research] for three to five years. And as that time comes up, we’re going to have to do some soul searching about whether it’s worth it to re-up on our permits, or if the faculty want to move on to other questions.”

Granted, aquaculture isn’t a huge industry in California. In a 2014 interview with KQED, Lovell said that it was a $175-million industry. With that in mind, it would be easy to write this off as an isolated problem in a niche industry, but that would ignore the bigger picture.

According to NOAA, the United States imports 90 percent of its seafood, half of which is from aquaculture. This puts the country at $12 billion annual trade deficit.

Aquaculture is a profitable, fast-growing industry, globally valued at $100 billion and it’s expected to double by 2020. China has 50 percent of the market share; the United States has one.

According to Murphy, Marquez’s consultant and former NOAA scientist, this imbalance creates an environmental problem as much as an economic one. 

“We do a really good job, comparatively speaking, to making sure that whatever goes on in our oceans is done in an environmentally sustainable way. You can’t say that about most of the countries we’re importing our seafood from.” he said. “We’re essentially exporting environmental problems outside of the U.S. And to me, that’s morally wrong.”

Dutton echoed this sentiment and underscored the importance of research in the area.

“Wild fisheries are pretty maxed out,” Dutton said. She believes that aquaculture will only become more important to feed a growing, global population. “I think all of us have concerns about how to do it right,” she said, but emphasizes that 50 percent of our seafood already comes from aquaculture, “so it’s not something we can defer thinking about. We need to be actively strategizing how to incorporate aquaculture into our food-stream.”

Lovell agrees with them, but recognizes his department’s inability to assuage the problem. Until Marquez came along, his department hadn’t issued a new ocean-bottom aquaculture lease in 20 years. In that time, he said, they lost a lot of institutional knowledge. That’s why simple things like changing the template of a lease can take so many months.

While they would like to see more of this activity, Lovell doesn’t see how to support it at this point.

“It will take more manpower. And the way to get more manpower is through public support of the activity,” Lovell said. “We have been content with 90 percent imported seafood. When we, as consumers, decide that we would prefer to buy our seafood that is produced here locally, things might change.”

But until that day, it looks like farmers and researchers alike will twiddle their thumbs, waiting for the agencies’ stamp of approval—before they can get started farming for the future.

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