Nova Scotia

Kelp farming an untapped market in N.S. that could be worth millions

There's a push underway to increase farmed kelp production in Nova Scotia's aquaculture industry. A move that could be worth nearly $40-million a year, according to an economic analysis released this week. Today it is barely a business.

'Last year, we had a ton of kelp. It was awesome'

A boat with seaweed draped across it.
A pilot project for kelp farming is underway in Mahone Bay, N.S. A new report suggests the industry could be worth nearly $40 million in Nova Scotia in three to five years. (Ecology Action Centre)

There's a push underway to increase farmed kelp production in Nova Scotia's aquaculture industry.

A move that could be worth nearly $40-million a year, according to an economic analysis released this week.

Today it is barely a business.

It started as a few pilot projects to see if kelp could be grown and now added to existing shellfish leases after a lengthy and cumbersome review that can take years.

Michelle Samson, director of aquaculture with Premium Seafoods in Cape Breton, was among the first.

"Last year, we had a ton of kelp. It was awesome," Samson told CBC News.

Like other seaweeds, kelp can be processed — often dried and crushed — and used as an additive to food, health and beauty products. But farming kelp is in the very early stages.

"Last year, we outperformed other sites in Nova Scotia. But why? We don't really know that yet," Samson said. "It will be really interesting to see once we get growers farming kelp in Nova Scotia."

The Ecology Action Centre, an environmental group based in Halifax, released an economic analysis on the potential impact in Nova Scotia of capturing about 10 per cent of the existing North American market.

'That's really good business'

Arlin Wasserman, the co-author of the analysis and the founder and managing director of Changing Tastes consultancy, said it could translate into $38 million for farmed and processed kelp in the next three to five years.

"That's a really good business," Wasserman said.

Wasserman presented his findings this week at an event sponsored by the Ecology Action Centre in Lunenburg, N.S. He said the province is "exceptionally well positioned" to gain a significant share of a $200-million regional market in Canada and the United States.

Seawood hangs from a line on a boat.
Until recently, farming the flowing yellow-orange seaweed has been approved only as a pilot project in Nova Scotia. (Premium Seafoods)

"Because of the natural resource, how close we are to population centres, there's a history and an infrastructure for the seafood industry," Wasserman told the crowd of provincial officials, aquaculture operators and environmentalists.

Wasserman urged the province to act fast to take advantage of North American market demand which the report predicted could reach 53 million kilograms annually in just a couple of years.

The report said Nova Scotia should aim for about 1,080 hectares of farmed ocean, estimating it could produce 5.4 million kilograms of kelp within three to five years.

What must happen to kick-start industry

The report noted an additional $20 million in local economic activity is possible from the purchase of goods and services, increased tourism, new jobs and wage creation. It estimated another $111 million could be added in manufacturing processed products.

But all of this is a long way from today.

Charlene LeBlanc runs the LeBlanc Seeded Lines, a land-based kelp seedling business in Lower West Pubnico.

A kelp harvester pulls up a line of seaweed to a boat.
Premium Seafoods in Cape Breton was part of a kelp-farming pilot project. (Premium Seafoods)

LeBlanc said more lease approvals are needed to move the industry forward.

"I do hear a lot of frustration that people are waiting and waiting and they keep getting promises to have leases added, especially those who have existing shellfish leases," she said. "And they're still waiting."

Shannon Arnold, associate director of marine programs at the Ecology Action Centre, is also involved in a commercial kelp project in Mahone Bay, outside Halifax.

Speeding up approvals

Arnold said it's time to speed up approvals.

"Right now, it's taking a few years to get folks on the water to get those permits in place. The government has committed to right-sizing the regulations for marine plants and shellfish farming," Arnold said. 

"We want to work with them to make that happen so that Nova Scotia doesn't get left behind by our neighbouring jurisdictions who are very keen on kelp as well."

A man dressed in white standing in front of an oven holds up a plate.
Chef Martin Ruiz Salvador of Beach Pea Kitchen in Lunenburg, N.S., presented one dish from a kelp-based menu. It's a kelp-braised beef shank with grilled leeks and leek cream, with a dehydrated kelp chip and kelp oil. (Paul Withers/CBC)

Streamlining the rules 

The provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is in the midst of a regulatory review that is intended to speed up approvals for non-fish fish aquaculture.

On Thursday, Minister Steve Craig said "it makes perfect sense" to co-locate approvals for shellfish and sea plants like kelp.

"It could be as simple as if shellfish are approved, then after we've done all the work and studies say, well, if shellfish would meet the same criteria as sea plants then they can be located, co-located easier," he said.

"So, that would make it a lot simpler and maybe lead to a blanket approval once we reach that point. But we're not there yet."

He says the regulatory overhaul is expected by the end of the year.

Susan Corkum-Greek, Nova Scotia's minister of economic development, said the province will have to work with federal departments to develop the kelp business. She said her department has "voiced some pretty strong concerns" about "tie-ups" at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

"We don't want to be ready to go and still have hurdles," Corkum-Greek said.

A woman wearing glasses and a black shirt stands in front of red house.
Michelle Samson is the director of aquaculture with Premium Seafoods in Cape Breton. (CBC)

Samson said kelp is new to the government and growers, but she's been at it for three years.

She said kelp is a perfect fit to farming sea scallops, her company's main aquaculture business, which has busy seasons in spring and fall. Kelp is a winter crop harvested in May.

"It's a really great opportunity for shellfish growers and Nova Scotia to possibly keep people all year long, which is really great," she said.

Optimism for kelp

Samson said she's optimistic about the prospects.

"We finally have some hatcheries that are producing. We have some leases that are able to put kelp on their lease and see how it grows — which is great. So I think this will really be a test year for kelp in Nova Scotia."

Premium Seafoods in Arichat has been experimenting with growing kelp.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.