Could ocean plants such as kelp become "the new kale?"

Could ocean plants such as kelp become “the new kale?” That’s the dream of many in the burgeoning world of marine aquaculture -- including Dan Marquez in Goleta.

In the same way that kale, an all but unknown vegetable twenty-five years ago, became a common food for the health-minded -- “the national food of Ojai,” some joke -- the hope is that kelp, the most elemental of all seaweeds, could be grown for consumption. At the same time this initiative could help foster clean and healthy oceans along the California coast, which have been badly hurt by acidification, pollution, and the near-extinction of the California sea otter.

At an Oceans in Peril event co-sponsored at the Ojai Retreat by the Green Coalition earlier this month, attendees heard sea farmer Dan Marquez of Goleta explain the benefits of kelp, the challenges of growing it off the coast in Goleta, and the opportunities kelp offers as a food and as an ingredient in cosmetics.

“Kelp is the filtration system for the oceans, and the largest sequesterer of carbon on the planet,” said Marquez. “Kelp sequesters more carbon than land-based plants or trees. One study found that if we could farm 9 percent of the ocean, we could feed the ocean, reduce our need for fossil fuels, and stop the acidification process.”

Marquez, who has worked closely with leading kelp farmer Bren Smith on the East Coast to learn aquaculture, and explore the possibility of his farm becoming a floating classroom, said that the California coast once had vast undersea forests of kelp. Kelp is a keystone species, he explained, comparable to the coast redwood in its ability to foster the growth and activity of countless other species.

“The kelp forests along the coasts of Southern California are considered to be some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet,” according to a UC Davis study. A report from the National Marine Sanctuaries cites that over the last 100 years they have been set back by coastal pollution, harvesting for use in fertilizer, grazing by fish and sea urchins, warming waters, and storms,.

“My main goal is to help the ocean get healthy again,” Marquez said. “It needs our help; we’ve done some really bad things to it. That’s my focus, but it’s really crazy how beneficial kelp is to us. Every other breath we take comes from the ocean.”

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Marquez in his boat, photo courtesy of Pharmersea.com