Oct 24, 2022 - Energy & Environment

New seaweed deal taps into Indigenous ecological knowledge

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Lanks/Classicstock, Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A New Zealand First Nations tribe has just signed a Trans-Pacific seaweed research and farming deal with Blu3, a California-based climate tech company.

Why it matters: The joint venture represents a way for the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui to preserve tribal sovereignty and build economic resilience while innovating solutions to mitigating climate change.

How it works: The venture will include several research and commercial projects, focusing on the potential of seaweed to capture and store carbon, as well as ways it can be used in food, bioenergy, construction and biopharmaceuticals.

  • The growing seaweed protein market, expected to reach $1.51 billion by 2030, is a big incentive — as are "blue carbon markets," or projects to restore ecosystems that can capture carbon, which are projected to be worth $50 billion by 2030.
  • The undisclosed investment for the new partnership is coming from the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui themselves, while future federal funding is likely.

For the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe, who are Māori, leading the deal is an opportunity to be central to conservation solutions and help mitigate the effects of climate change on New Zealand's Indigenous peoples, like rising seas and declines in marine species.

  • "We have a spiritual, religious relationship with the sea and its space," Rikirangi Gage, member of the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and a Te Huata Trustee, told Axios.
  • The deal also allows the tribe to develop economic resilience, which is important, as severe poverty is plaguing many within it.
  • "A key motivation is the well-being of our people, and also the well-being of our lands and our territories."

Poverty is a problem for tribal nations across the globe. Although they only make up 6% of the world's population, Indigenous peoples account for 15% of the world's poor, according to the World Bank.

  • Biodiversity decline is contributing to that, according to a statement made by José Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, during a U.N. Third Committee meeting this month.
  • Tzay cited human-caused climate change and industrialization as some of the key drivers of that decline.

Of note: That's why it's essential for scientists and businesses to partner directly with Indigenous peoples, according to Haydn Read, who works with the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and is a Te Huata Trustee.

  • "In the First Nations, people have a worldview on the environment that others don't share. There's a deep knowledge there," Read told Axios.

State of play: Seaweed farming is low-impact, emitting fewer greenhouse gases than other industries, and seaweed stores around 175 million tons of CO2 every year.

Yes, but: There is uncertainty regarding the carbon storage capabilities of seaweed. A 2022 study published in ICES Journal of Marine Science found that seaweed ecosystems may not be the storage sinks we believe them to be, but instead a net source of carbon emissions.

  • The carbon-offset market is also riddled with controversy, which applies to seaweed as well as land-based offsets. And there's ecological risks in large-scale seaweed farming to consider.

What they're saying: Beau Perry, CEO of Blu3, told Axios that all of the possible impacts are "addressable" through system design and regulation.

  • "The partnership, which benefits greatly from the innate and long-standing Indigenous knowledge, complemented by modern engineering and monitoring platforms, will allow this initiative to lead the effort to develop the most ecologically sensible mass production of seaweed," Perry told Axios.
Go deeper