Seaweed solutions win recognition at the Seagriculture Innovation Awards

Two macroalgae research teams from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution earned Gold and Silver Innovation Awards at the first annual Seagriculture Conference in Portland, Maine.

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
14 October 2022, at 7:00am
Kelp at the ocean's surface
A strain of sugar kelp being farmed off the coast of New Hampshire, United States

Kelp and other seaweeds provide essential micronutrients and bioactive compounds for human health. Their stem-like stipes (attached to the long leafy blades) are rich in alginate, an important compound extracted from seaweeds and used in pharmaceuticals and biomedicine. © David Bailey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Seagriculture Conference brought together international experts on seaweed cultivation, aquaculture and food systems. The Innovation Awards were given to researchers leading exceptional projects that pioneer novel ideas in seaweed research and technology.

The Gold Innovation Award was presented to a collaborative research team led by WHOI research specialist Scott Lindell, including experts from the University of Connecticut and University of Southern California and offers methods for selecting, breeding and improving sugar kelp production by propagating sporeless – or infertile – offspring.

Infertility is an important management feature for breeding programmes because most national and state regulators are not yet prepared to permit selectively bred farmed strains for fear they may impact natural resources. Currently, there is limited understanding of the probability of interbreeding between wild kelp and selectively improved strains, and the possible effect on the wild. So far, Lindell and the team have tested 25 assumed sterile strains, and two have been either late ripening or sterile. They also have a patent pending that covers the method for making infertile kelp via identification of natural mutations controlling fertility.

“​​In order for US kelp farms to continue growing and competing internationally, modern plant breeding, genetics and agronomic practices must be adopted in an environmentally-responsible way,” said Lindell. “In this case, infertility is a desired outcome, and our selective breeding and sporeless kelp innovation (and the associated open-source tools we have developed) could transform the industry, enable the expansion of profitable production in the North Eastern US and serve as a model for other regions of the world.”

WHOI’s kelp aquaculture research recently received a $700,000 National Sea Grant Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), further enhancing the team’s work towards expanding seaweed farming by use of sporeless breeding technology.

“With this scientific information, we will develop a public education and communication programme about our research results and demonstrate how they are relevant to social policy and commercial licensing,” said Lindell.

Also at the Seagriculture Awards, the Silver Innovation Award was given to a collaborative research team led by WHOI research associate David Bailey, including WHOI engineers Robin Littlefield and Ben Weiss. The team developed an automated underwater seaweed seed-string deployment device (patent pending) with potential to reduce labour needs on seaweed farms in Kodiak, Alaska.

seaweed stringing device
Automated underwater seaweed seed-stringing device

A WHOI-led team developed an automated underwater seaweed seed-string deployment device (patent pending) with potential to reduce labour needs on seaweed farms in Kodiak, Alaska. Multiple devices may be used at the same time to further increase efficiency of the farm seeding process. © Robin Littlefield, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The device, funded by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission: 2020 Marine Pilot RFP Selected Project, has two seed-spools which are loaded on an automated line seeder and attached to the grow-line with quick-connect clips. The tail end of the seed-string is fixed to the rope and the thrusters are activated with a waterproof switch. When the device reaches the end of the grow-line, the thrusters are deactivated, allowing a farmer on the opposite side to secure the seed-string and detach the device. The farmer then attaches the device to the next line and the process repeats in the reverse direction until the entire farm is seeded. Multiple units may be used at the same time to further increase efficiency of the farm seeding process.

“This device eliminates the need for grow-line attachment and detachment which will allow the farmers to seed much faster than traditional methods,” said Bailey. “The proposed method will substantially lessen the time the seed spool spends in the air, reducing the time of exposure to the elements from minutes to seconds to increase seedling survivability. Removing the above-surface component from seeding will also increase the weather window in which seeding can occur. The use of multiple self-spooling systems will reduce the number of boat trips back and forth along the length of the farm for a greater savings in time, fuel, and reduced wear on equipment.”