Vegetables courtesy of the Indian Ocean

Vegetables courtesy of the Indian Ocean

Life & Style
A diver's view of the Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables farm below the water line.

A diver's view of the Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables farm below the water line.

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"The water & nutrients moving through the bay provides the perfect environment for promoting the growth of the algae/seaweed."

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SEA vegetables is not a term the vast majority of the population is used to hearing, but one business hopes to make it a staple in the diet of as many Western Australians and Australians as possible.

So what are sea vegetables?

How are they cultivated and harvested?

What does a sea vegetable farm look like?

For the past three years, Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables and its four directors have been researching and implementing a sea vegetable growing business - making them the Western Australian experts in the field.

Co-director Emma McPherson gave an insight into this exciting new venture and how it aims to provide nutritional food alternatives for the consumer and also help heal the WA coastline and its ocean's biodiversity and regeneration.

Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables will focus on producing edible seaweed or sea greens.

It not just any seaweed, they use a seaweed that is native to the South West coast and grows in Geographe Bay.

A small selection of Western Australian seaweed species, the vibrant colours and textures are matched by the nutrient rich properties of the kelp that truly make them the vegetables of the ocean.

A small selection of Western Australian seaweed species, the vibrant colours and textures are matched by the nutrient rich properties of the kelp that truly make them the vegetables of the ocean.

"It all started with my brother Luke Hill," Ms McPherson said.

"He does a lot of diving and was noticing an abundance of macroalgae species that were growing on the Busselton jetty.

"He particularly noticed how quick the growth was on areas that had been refurbished, so the timbers were new.

"He wondered why hasn't anyone thought to harness this?

"The water and nutrients moving through the bay provides the perfect environment for promoting the growth of the algae/seaweed.

"It is such a great natural food source that enhances biodiversity and biomass in the ocean and has all these amazing benefits."

She said Mr Hill had also read an article by Bren Smith, who set up GreenWave regenerative ocean farming of kelp in the United States and the idea really resonated with him.

"Luke and Drew go fishing a lot together and they really started to discuss the idea," Ms McPherson said.

"So then they thought why not and decided to give it a try."

Mr Hill and Andrew (Drew) Hennessy, along with Matt Bevis and Ms McPherson, are now the four co-directors of the business, which has been in the research and development phase for the past three years.

"We are the only ones in WA that we know of that have something in the water," Ms McPherson said.

"There are others who have permits, but are not utilising them at present."

Their farm is a leased area of Geographe Bay, an area that is controlled through the Department of Fisheries and the Aquaculture Council.

"It is just like a mussel farm or oyster farm," Ms McPherson.

"At present it is only a research permit we have, so we are not allowed to sell anything that we grow.

"We are only allowed to wild harvest and grow for research purposes."

The culinary uses for seaweeds are endless.

The culinary uses for seaweeds are endless.

This research is aimed to prove that the seaweed crop is viable and that the seaweed farming is low impact, before they apply for a commercial permit.

Low impact is definitely something Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables is conscious of and the team's desire to grow their product in an ecologically and environmentally-minded way runs through every aspect of their business.

"We are doing everything as low impact as we possibly can right down to our packaging," Ms McPherson said.

"The way that we are growing our products in the ocean is important too.

"We are not using nylon lines or polystyrene, we use natural fibre lines and long-lasting hard plastic floats."

She said they wanted to keep everything transparent and low impact and also that the area that the products were grown in is clean water.

This foresight and direction really fits in with the push from society in more recent times, that was heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, relating to food provenance and people wanting to have more understanding and ownership over where their food comes from.

Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables is focused on the local aspect of its business and in that has emphasised this aspect from the beginning.

The holistic business approach is very evident when you look at its Instagram and Facebook pages and as soon as you speak to any of its directors.

They hope to run a business that provides a premium product with high nutritional value for human consumption and also helps regenerate the local marine environment for future generations to benefit from and enjoy.

Growing only seaweed endemic to the South West and Geographe Bay area shows they are definitely not in it just for profit.

"There has been huge amounts of habitat and reef loss in the bay over many years," Ms McPherson said.

"Our way of farming is a vertical system that has a very low risk of entanglement for cetaceans such as whales and dolphins and other species can move through freely.

"In a way it is representing a natural kelp forest."

She said there had been massive loss of kelp forests off the WA coast and The University of WA researchers had been working on ways to try to regenerate areas of kelp forests because it was such an important part of the marine ecosystem.

Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables is aiming for a product that is solely for human consumption and while there are a big selection of sea grasses, seaweed, kelp or algae that grow in the area, the research they have done has trialled six different species in particular.

"We will focus on three of these to begin with," Ms McPherson said.

"The three that have been doing really well.

"They can make a lot of super nutritious products you can add into your diet, whether they are dried, pickled, cured, brined, flaked or made into things such as noodles."

Being a local WA business and in the veritable food bowl of the South West puts them in a prime position to trial their products on a very food conscious consumer market.

"We are lucky to have a really good line-up of local restaurants keen to try our products once they become available," Ms McPherson said.

One thing all four directors share in common, other than the business, is a passion for food, sustainability and conservation, both marine and terrestrial.

Mr Hill has run his own arboricultural business in Dunsborough for the past 10 years, while spending countless hours in the ocean diving.

"In 2019 he utilised grant funding to go on a research trip to Japan, where he visited many commercial seaweed farms and laboratories," Ms McPherson said.

This is where he noticed the use of harmful polystyrene floats and nylon lines, where some of the farms were focussed on maximum outputs and minimum inputs, no matter the environmental cost.

"He was shocked at some of the farming practices over there," she said.

"The environment doesn't always come first, it was about mass productivity and product over anything else."

Mr Hill's diving experience is also crucial to the set up, maintenance and harvesting of the seaweed.

Mr Hennessy brings the science to the fore for the project, with his certificates in aquaculture and diploma of laboratory technology.

"He has 17 years' experience in lab science and management under his belt, also food safety and beverage quality assurance," Ms McPherson said.

"He has drawn up the plans for our soon-to-be-built lab and is creating magic in developing macro-algae seeding techniques.

"He is also the master data and research collator."

Mr Bevis is the engineering mind behind the venture.

"He has qualifications as a fitter and turner, mechanical engineer, shipwright and has his master captains licence for vessels up to 200 tonnes commercially endorsed," Ms McPherson said.

"He brings an incredible skill set in mooring and marine knowledge and maintenance."

Ms McPherson is, by her own admission, the chief social media and marketing person, recipe tester and overseas business implementer.

She has also studied horticulture, permaculture design and conservation and land management and is an experienced diver.

"Thanks to my current mentorship with Agristart Connect regional innovation hub, I have found the entrepreneurial accelerator program absolutely incredible,'' she said.

"It has given me some really great contacts in DPIRD and other local businesses within regenerative industries."

These contacts have been really helpful, as has the program, in helping to look at investment options and scaling and providing a network from which Ms McPherson has gained knowledge and ideas.

Another help has been the Australian Seaweed Institute and AgriFutures Australia's Australian Seaweed Industry Blueprint.

According to the blueprint, the Australian seaweed industry is making waves, with plans to be a $100 million plus industry in the next five years.

The blueprint outlines plans for a $1.5 billion Australian seaweed industry that could employ 9000 people and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent.

For current seaweed producers, it offers the foundations needed to mobilise industry development and realise the opportunities in sight.

"Seaweed offers a huge opportunity for Australia's blue economy development with the global seaweed market projected at $30b by 2025," said Jo Kelly, Australian Seaweed Institute chief executive officer and lead author of the Australian Seaweed Industry Blueprint.

"Australia has no commercial-scale seaweed ocean farms and no industry development plan, but rapid change is on the horizon.

"We've consulted with industry and identified a $100m plus opportunity for seaweed over the next five years, with potential to scale to $1.5b over the next 20 years.

"This will create thousands of jobs in regional towns and reduce Australia's national greenhouse gas emissions significantly."

Just one of the native seaweeds found off the Australian coast, Asparagopsis, has been shown to reduce methane emissions from cattle to almost zero when added to their feed.

This is significant given about 10pc of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia come from the digestion process of cattle.

Major investors such as Andrew Forrest, Woolworths and GrainCorp have invested in Future Feed, a commercialisation of the Asparagopsis feed additive pioneered by the CSIRO.

"This single use for seaweed is incredibly exciting, but it is just the tip of the iceberg as the research into bioproducts from native Australian seaweed species has potential to contribute to global health and nutrition while adding significant value to the Australian economy," Ms Kelly said.

The future of the industry will rely on significant expansion into ocean cultivation of native seaweeds and development of high value nutritional products for humans, animals and plants.

The report also highlights the role of State government aquaculture policy and processes and research and development funding as critical to support early stage industry development.

AgriFutures Australia senior manager, emerging industries, Tom McCue said the formation of a dedicated research, development and extension plan is a crucial step for the Australian seaweed industry, offering a clear pathway to capitalise on growth opportunities.

"Seaweed has enormous potential and AgriFutures Australia is proud to be supporting industry growth as part of our Emerging Industries Program," Mr McCue said.

For Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables the industry blueprint only helps to prove that they are on the right track with their research and development and they hope to have their business ready for a commercial licence very soon.

If this has piqued your interest into a different type of sustainable farming and you are keen to know more or try their products in the future follow Indian Ocean Sea Vegetables on Instagram or Facebook.

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