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The age of algae

From sushi to orange juice, Dr. Thierry Chopin wants you to look at seaweeds in a whole new light

The age of algae

Dr. Thierry Chopin of the University of New Brunswick (UNB) admits the brown, red and green slippery, bulbous stuff covering virtually every coast in the world isn’t the most appetizing looking product for a westerner. Chopin, however, contends that you are probably already digesting seaweeds as part of your daily diet – a trend which the scientific director of the Canadian Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture Network (CIMTAN) predicts will expand soon.

Atlantic Business Magazine (ABM): What exactly is CIMTAN?

Dr. Thierry Chopin (TC): The Network is a combination of 16 projects, both on the east and west coasts of Canada. Mine deals with kelps and the development of seaweeds for biomitigation and the development of new applications. CIMTAN started in January 2010 and will finish in 2016. I’m very pleased with results to date; the project is progressing well. We have a budget of $9.7 million for the entire Network: $5.1 million from NSERC, $600,000 in cash contributions from various sources, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and industry partners, and $4 million in-kind from contributions from DFO, UNB and industry partners.

ABM: So, seaweeds … why are you so excited about seaweeds?

TC: If you go to a sushi bar, you’re probably looking at the rice and the fish. Me, I’m looking at the wrapper – that’s a piece of seaweed. Seaweeds are also used extensively in cosmetics. We’re working on organically certified kelps to use in food and cosmetics. Then you have seaweeds in aquaculture, to feed salmon as a partial alternative to fish meal. There are proteins and other ingredients also in seaweeds. We are working on partial fish meal substitution with Cooke Aquaculture Inc. It comes down to growing the right species for the right purpose. The species you want isn’t everywhere. So, we are currently cultivating on ropes two species of kelps and are working on the cultivation of dulse – we want crops that will be used by industry.

A rope of cultivated kelps at an Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) site in the Bay of Fundy, Canada (photo credit: Thierry Chopin).

A rope of cultivated kelps at an Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) site in the Bay of Fundy, Canada (photo credit: Thierry Chopin).

ABM: But why bother with seaweeds in the first place?

TC: We are working to develop sustainable aquaculture practices to get more social acceptance of aquaculture. The aquaculture sector falls into two main categories: fed aquaculture with organisms that you feed, that you give food; then there is extractive aquaculture, with organisms naturally extracting things out of the water. In our case, in the Bay of Fundy, we have salmon as the fed aquaculture component. We give them some food. You bring in the seaweeds to recapture the dissolved inorganic nutrients. Then the shellfish recapture the small organic particles in the water column.

Then the larger particles fall to the bottom. That’s why we want to develop sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea worms, lobsters, etc… It’s Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA), where we work to feed and grow organisms all along the food chain. All the elements are grown and harvested in an integrated manner.

This is sustainable aquaculture, because you’re recovering nutrients and growing extra crops. You have the opportunity to sell invertebrates and seaweeds from the same system. Think of it as economic diversification, where you don’t put all your salmon eggs in the same basket. It’s like your share portfolio; you want to diversify so that if one year, one doesn’t work – you always have something going. We hope that because we are improving aquaculture practices, there will also be greater societal acceptability of aquaculture.

We’ve been working on seaweeds for different applications. That’s what we call the Integrated Sequential BioRefinery (ISBR) approach. Customers have been asking for certification and we received organic certification last spring. We should not forget that seaweeds also render tremendous ecosystem services (nutrient biomitigation, oxygen provision, carbon sequestration, reduction of ocean acidification, etc.).

ABM: What makes your project different or ground-breaking?

TC: Although cultivating seaweeds is not that common in the western world, it’s nothing new. We are unique because we are moving from mono-culture (e.g. salmon only or mussels only) to taking advantage of the interactions between species. If we combine complementary species, the system will become more balanced. Have to be careful of just having one type of species… too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. We are looking at innovative ways of selecting and cultivating species based on their functions in the ecosystem. It’s both environmental and economic diversification.

ABM: Do seaweeds realistically have commercial potential as a food product? If so, what will it take for your project to make that next step?

TC: By 2050, we will have some 9 billion people on the planet. An increasing population means we will need more food. On land, we are pretty close to having maximized yields. At sea, many of the wild fisheries have plateaued or decreased. What is left? For me, it is cultivating, at sea, and also in freshwater. Aquaculture is the way to secure more food for the future and the increasing human population. We have to do it right. That’s where IMTA comes in. It’s about more responsible aquaculture, combining multiple complementary species. We are discovering new foods and applications for seaweeds. You may not realize it, but you probably already started your day with seaweeds – there are seaweed extracts in orange juice to keep the pulp in suspension. You will also finish your day with seaweeds. Do you brush your teeth before you go to bed? Toothpaste is a paste because of the seaweed extracts in it. In Japan, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia they have very large scale seaweed aquaculture operations worth more than US$6 billion. In the western world, we are slowly catching up and IMTA will be one way to develop responsibly the aquaculture of seaweeds and other organisms. There’s a huge global demand for them.

One of the delicious dishes created by Chef Chris Aerni, owner of the Rossmount Inn in St. Andrews, New Brunswick: crispy skin IMTA Atlantic salmon fillet, organic IMTA kelp wrap, nori dust, ginger-carrot purée, sweet soy drizzle, potato blini, Atlantic salmon caviar and goose tongue greens (photo credit: Thierry Chopin).

One of the delicious dishes created by Chef Chris Aerni, owner of the Rossmount Inn in St. Andrews, New Brunswick: crispy skin IMTA Atlantic salmon fillet, organic IMTA kelp wrap, nori dust, ginger-carrot purée, sweet soy drizzle, potato blini, Atlantic salmon caviar and goose tongue greens (photo credit: Thierry Chopin).

ABM: Last question – do you have a favourite seaweed dish?

TC: There’s a local chef here who does a very interesting salmon/seaweed wrap, and a very good miso soup as well. After delivering their babies, mothers in South Korea have seaweed soup for several weeks to regain strength; at each birthday of their children, families have seaweed soup. Sea vegetables are served at almost every meal, not necessarily in large quantities, but always present. I wish we had such traditions here!

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