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Salt Point Seaweed

Tessa Emmer and Avery Resor (MDP '16 Development Practice) are on a mission to sell sustainably harvested seaweed.

Tessa Emmer harvests seaweed in Mendocino County. PHOTO: Courtesy of Salt Point Seaweed.

Wherever they go, they’re known as “the seaweed girls.” Tessa Emmer, ’16, Avery Resor, ’16, and Catherine O’Hare—the women behind the Bay Area–based company Salt Point Seaweed—are on a mission to offer locally and sustainably harvested, nutrient-rich seaweed products and transform the way that aquaculture is implemented along the Golden State’s coastline and beyond.

Launched in 2017, Salt Point Seaweed reflects the trio’s shared backgrounds in sustainable agriculture and food systems, as well as their time spent working and studying in East Africa. “What started as a hobby turned into a project, and now it totally absorbs our lives,” Emmer says. The three harvest California kombu, California wakame, and wild nori—products used for culinary seasoning—and sell the seaweed in their online store.

Emmer and Resor—graduates of CNR’s Master of Development Practice (MDP) program—and O’Hare, who attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate with Emmer, were first introduced to the world of California seaweed at UC Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, which houses one of the best algae collections in the world. Together, they began harvesting wild seaweed on the California coast for fun four years ago. But it was while working in Tanzania—where cultivating seaweed is a livelihood strategy, primarily for women—that they learned firsthand about the logistics and challenges of growing, harvesting, and selling it. “We went there to see what we could learn from these women,” Resor says. “And we always kept in mind how we could share what we learned with folks around the world.”

The seaweed farmed in East Africa, as well as in other parts of the world, Emmer says, is sold on the global market. So when she and Resor returned to California, they were intrigued by the idea of harvesting and farming native seaweed as a local product. “There’s an abundance of native varieties of seaweed growing right here in the Pacific Northwest that have traditionally been eaten,” Emmer says, “but we were surprised to learn that close to 95 percent of the seaweed that we eat in this country is imported.”

The bureaucracy of mariculture

The women were excited to harvest wild seaweed varieties in the Bay Area—which is well-known for its local and sustainable food movement and has a sizable population willing to pay more for traceable products. But when they dove into the prospect of actually farming their own seaweed in California, they encountered some significant barriers. One of the biggest, they say, is the state’s complex, expensive aquaculture framework, which was set up to regulate large-scale companies.

“It’s hard as a small business to get permitted to farm seaweed,” Resor says. “And we’re part of this movement to work with regulators, different mariculture businesses, and policy groups to try to make a more accessible route for small, sustainable businesses.”

"What started as a hobby turned into a project, and now it totally absorbs our lives."
-Tessa Emmer

In an effort to test the integration of seaweed into an existing coastal business, in September 2017 the Salt Point trio launched an innovative pilot farm—the first of its kind in California—with the shellfish farmers at Hog Island Oyster Co. in the North Bay. The women are assessing the growth rate of the native seaweed genus Gracilaria in Tomales Bay and recording carbon and nitrogen absorption.

Resor says that they’re conscious of the fact that the market for local seaweed—which doesn’t require pesticides, fertilizer, fresh water, or land to thrive and, in fact, can benefit the environment in which it’s grown—is flourishing. “In order to keep up with that growing demand, we believe that farming is a more sustainable option for the future than relying on our current business model of only wild harvesting.”

Photo of Tessa Emmer, Avery Resor, and Catherine O'Hare.

Tessa Emmer, Avery Resor, and Catherine O'Hare are on a mission to sell sustainably harvested seaweed.

PHOTO: Shaun Wolfe

Economics and ecosystems

The practice-based approach of the MDP program, which both Emmer and Resor say they were drawn to for its interdisciplinary learning format, helped inform the grant-funded pilot seaweed farm.

The program also focuses on economics and how such pilot systems work, Resor explains, noting the many parallels between land-based agriculture and water-based food production. She points to the research of her CNR adviser, Claire Kremen, on ecosystems, valuing ecosystem services, and integrated agriculture as key to Salt Point Seaweed’s progress. “Our pilot farm is really looking at how, with integrated mariculture, we can measure these ecosystem services and maximize them.”

Salt Point Seaweed’s wild-harvesting operation, Emmer says, has been a great opportunity to build the market for California seaweed. But data collected from the pilot farm, which will conclude in November, could help advance seaweed farming across the state. “We’ve learned a lot just by putting together this pilot,” she says, “doing it on a small scale and then seeing what it looks like in action.”