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Study shows kelp contributes $500 billion to the global economy — Startups have long caught on

kelp floats in bright blue water
Image Credit: Caleb Kastein // Unsplash

For millennia, long before the age of humans, marine kelp forests have provided valuable ecosystem services. Now, during the height of the Anthropocene, the ecological and economic value of those services is largely unaccounted for.

A new paper published in last month’s issue of Nature Communications calculates just how much global kelp forests contribute to the world’s economy, finding that collectively they generate at least $500 billion a year. According to Adriana Vergés, professor of marine ecology at the University of New South Wales and an author of the Nature paper via Mongabay, this number is likely a “severe underestimate.”

For centuries, kelp has been used across the globe for food and medicine, and in the 21st century, the alginate polymer it produces is used for bioengineering and biomedicine. But a big part of kelp’s contribution is the carbon it sequesters, the oxygen it releases, and the marine nutrients this process disperses.

All-in-all, the study calculates that each of the six major forest-forming kelp genera creates a potential value between $64,400 and $147,100 per hectare each year through fisheries production, nutrient cycling, and carbon removal.

The $500 billion headlining figure is three times that of previous best estimates, plus future studies may provide an even higher value because as the authors note, there are many other kelp services to assess.

“For the first time, we have the figures to demonstrate the considerable commercial value of our global kelp forests,” Aaron Eger, a marine scientist at UNSW and founder and program director of the Kelp Forest Alliance, said in a statement in the study’s press release.

“Once you can communicate that value, people care more about a kelp forest,” he told Mongabay, adding that “governments and managing bodies can work to serve and manage those ecosystems better when they have an understanding of what’s there and how much it’s worth and how to account during the decision-making process.”

For a handful of startups, the value of kelp was enough to launch a business protecting them.

For some, like H&M-backed textile maker Keel Labs (formerly known as Algiknit), bioplastic companies like straw and cutlery maker Loliware and pollution fighter ULUU, and seaweed foodies like “seabacon” startup Umaro, the commercialization of kelp and algae incentivizes forest protection while making sustainable alternatives to things like plastic and meat that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and ocean pollution, which both, in turn, contribute to the degradation of kelp forests.

For other companies, like the biotech and CO2 removal startups Kelp Blue and Running Tide, their business is ocean restoration.

According to Kelp Blue, kelp has the potential to draw down more CO2 than terrestrial forests. The Nature study calculates that collectively, kelp forests remove 4.91 megatons of carbon from the atmosphere per year – a number likely to increase further as more kelp forests are mapped.

By planting large-scale Giant Kelp Forests, Kelp Blue believes we can restore the natural ocean wilderness while capturing excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

“Those are our two aims: restoring biodiversity to the ocean and burying carbon on a global scale,” CEO and founder Daniel Hooft in a video introducing their flagship Namibia project.

In addition to operating in the kelp-filled marine forests of Namibia, which Hooft says is home to some of the most nutrient-full waters in the world, they also have other pilot operations in Alaska and New Zealand.

In addition to fostering rewilding of these habitats, Kelp Blue also produces biotech applications like a biostimulant to help crops cope with climatic stresses, fucoidan, which is abundantly found in kelp and is a source of prebiotics, animal feed, and of course alginates.

According to Hooft, “Human history is full of stories of extraordinary innovation in the face of vast challenges. It’s time to put that ingenuity to work for our garden planet.”

Maine-based Running Tide has more technology in the mix. The startup builds software-controlled, aquatic growing systems, laden with sensors and machine vision, worked by algorithms that grow shellfish and macroalgae from seed to harvest it “at massive scales.”

Additionally, they develop diagnostics and interventions to restore ocean health with the goal of scaling its carbon dioxide removal (CDR) system. How does its system work? Well, Running Tide grows the kelp farms… and then sinks them, burying the CO2 forever.

“On geologic time scales it can remove 400 gigatons, 800 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. That will happen. So what we’re trying to do is just give it a nudge, and accelerate it,” Marty Odlin the CEO of Running Tide told the Boston media outlet WBUR.

Last month, the startup announced its initial framework protocol for open ocean carbon removal, which they hope can provide a framework for carbon accounting when it comes to marine protection. The framework was developed by a coalition of carbon accountants, oceanographers, engineers, and maritime operators.

“Carbon markets are in the midst of a crisis of trust, paralyzing progress around the urgent climate action we so desperately need,” the team behind Running Tide wrote in a press release. “This reinforces the importance of building social license and confidence in new carbon removal solutions, such as those conducted in the ocean, against the backdrop of an emerging — but not yet mature — industry.”

Running Tide intends to use the system to quantify the amount of carbon their systems help remove.

Kelp occupies 25% of the world’s coastlines, but in the last few decades, they’ve suffered deep losses, mostly due to climate change and human pollution. In California alone, a deadly combination of heat waves and ravenous invasive sea urchins has caused a 95% decline in kelp on the coast since 2014.

According to Eger, “Putting the dollar value on these systems is an exercise to help us understand one measure of their immense value.”

“It's important to remember these forests also have an intrinsic, historical, cultural, and social value in their own right,” he added in a statement.

The research is not intended to commodify kelp forests, but Eger hopes that it will spawn encourage governments to develop new industries around restoring and managing kelp forests, such as opportunities for marine management and conservation strategies, such as a credit system for offsetting emissions.

Luckily, a few startups are already diving in and kelping with the challenge.

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