California seaweed farmers test the waters

Doug Bush sprouts red seaweed at his onshore sea farm in Goleta. Photo credit: Carolina Starin

Off the coast of Goleta, sea farmer Doug Bush has been cultivating red algae seaweed since 2005. The jumbled red vegetable with fringed branches has led Bush to refer to it as a “pom-pom” of seaweed.

He is one of the first local ocean farmers in what could become big business for California.

“I don’t think seaweed is that weird anymore,” said Bush of The Cultured Abalone Farm, a California onshore seaweed and abalone farm in Goleta. “Some years ago it would have sounded exotic, but all our kids eat seaweed.” He notes that seaweed snacks can easily be found at big box stores like Trader Joe’s and Costco.

Bush, seeing an opportunity in those crispy snack packets, is now mastering the art of seaweed farming.  

“We’ve been messing around with different species of Santa Barbara County native red seaweeds and some have been more receptive to culture methods than others,” he said. “But, we’ve got one species of seaweed that we’re able to grow year round and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

Bush originally began farming his Ogo seaweed as a natural supplemental feed for his farmed abalone before realizing it was a worthy food product of its own.

“We’ve been working the last couple of years to market this,” he said. The red algae seaweed grows in a saltwater tank, floating freely in an out of the sunlight. “It makes an incredibly good poke and a really nice simple vegetarian seaweed salad with daikon and cucumber and a toasted rice vinaigrette.”

Bush sells his seaweed to chefs and home cooks at the seafood market every Saturday at the Santa Barbara Harbor. “It’s one of the few seaweeds that tastes great straight from the tank,” he said of one of his seaweed’s selling points. “It’s crunchy, briny and really fruitful and aromatic in the way an oyster is.”

Doug Bush weeds through a handful of Ogo seaweed fresh from the saltwater tank. Photo credit: Carolina Starin

Asia is already decades deep in sea farming businesses. The Chinese and Japanese governments have been supporting and encouraging large-scale seaweed farming for more than 70 years. Order a seaweed salad at a favorite sushi restaurant and that is likely from where it came.

Bush hopes to change that, especially as land farming become less economically viable and as consumers get excited about the many nutritional benefits of seaweed.

On the East Coast, aquacultural practices are more established with some farmers making a living off of seaweed alone. The Atlantic has a broader shelf with more protective waters and their native seaweeds tend to do well in a farming environment.

However, taking the seaweed out of the tank and onto ocean farms in California comes with its challenges.

“The difficulties off California are that there’s not a lot of protective waters,” said Dan Reed, a professor and ecologist at UC Santa Barbara who studies the role that California native kelp plays in nature. “There’s a lot of open coast and if you’re trying to keep farming structures in place, then when there are large swells, it becomes problematic.”

Californian sea farmers who hope to farm offshore also face complex permit requirements at the federal, state and local levels. But many aquaculturists are exploring their options, and Reed thinks we could see large-scale California seaweed aquaculture farms in the future.

Back at Bush’s farm, he is also optimistic about the future of seaweed farming. “I am vested in coastal health and good water quality. I need that for my farm,” he says. “Eating seaweeds that are growing in my local waters is a good thing for the whole coastal community.”



Carolina Starin