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Port Hopes Seaweed Farm Takes Root In San Diego Bay

The seaweed farm will take root at the end of the Grape Street Pier pictured ...

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: The seaweed farm will take root at the end of the Grape Street Pier pictured here on Aug. 27, 2018.

"So this is the farm site," said Leslie Booher as she walked on a floating platform beside the Grape Street Pier.

This San Diego Bay location is a spot many boat owners use as a watery parking lot. Booher and her partner Torre Polizzi see much more here.

In fact, the two founders of the small company called "Sunken Seaweed" plan to establish an underwater farm.

They have already mapped out a 90-foot by 40-foot zone where they hope to harvest the ocean's plant life.

Farm Will Use Whole Water Column

"It's quite compact, but remember we have 24 feet of water column to work with," Booher said. "So it's actually a pretty large cubic space when you look at it."

Booher, a marine biologist, said twine will be strung across the space at varying depths and that rope will anchor a number of different seaweed species which started their lives in a lab.

"They are growing on a large spool," she said of young plants attached to twine that's wound around a PVC pipe.

"So once these juveniles are grown out on that spool, we transfer the spool out and then we take it on preset lines and we just unspool it along those preset lines. And it just continues to grow on that line."

Weekly dives will allow the team to monitor how the lines and the fledgling plants are doing. Booher wants to make sure other plants or animals don't move in and push their crop out of the way.

Then, about every six weeks, they plan to harvest.

"In order to preserve the biodiversity, we don't want to clearcut every three months, right. So we want to selectively harvest and selectively plant so we can kind of keep this three-dimensional structure the whole time," she said.

The Plan Is To Harvest Variety

Torre Polizzi is standing on the boardwalk at the base of the old pier. He leans over a bucket that contains samples of what the company hopes to grow.

He reaches in and pulls out a light leafy plant, not surprisingly, called sea lettuce.

"If you're a fisherman or you've been around boats you've seen this growing off the side of your boat or on the ropes," Polizzi said.

Most people don't know that it's a very nutritious and tasty sea vegetable, Polizzi said, and there are a few more species the team hopes to put on local plates.

"The sea grapes are just a beautiful species," Polizzi said.

The purple plant has bulbs that resemble their namesake.

"They're edible. They're used a lot as decoration at high-end seafood places," Polizzi said.

Those seem perfectly suited for delicate and expensive palates, but not everything the fledgling operation plans to harvest has that ready for a market name.

"Another one we have here is dead man's fingers," Polizzi said.

Not exactly the best name for an ocean plant that Booher and Polizzi hope will grace plates in a fancy eatery.

But name notwithstanding, these plants which live in the intertidal zone between the shore and open ocean have value to local chefs.

"You can find these out in the intertidal as well. Something that chefs have done with these is tempura them and put it in a lot of sushi recipes. It's a really spongy rather tasty species," Polizzi said.

Photo by Erik Anderson

Boats rest in San Diego Bay near the Grape Street Pier on Aug. 27, 2018.

Tourism, ship operations, and retail already power a big chunk of the local economy, but the Port is working to broaden the bay's economic palate.

Potential Economic Engine.

The small company got a boost in the Port of San Diego's business incubator.

"There's a tremendous amount of opportunity here to diversify our lines of businesses in a way that's sustainable," said Rafael Castellanos, chairman of the Port of San Diego.

"And that's good for the port. It's good for the environment. It's good for the region and everybody in the state of California."

RELATED: Port Tries Growing Oysters In San Diego Bay

A fledgling oyster business near Tuna Harbor and this effort, near the Grape Street Pier, are part of what the Port hopes becomes a blue "ocean-based" economy.

Castellanos said the bay is clean enough to support these food businesses.

"We're getting all of the required health certifications in order to be able to sell these products. So we're not concerned about that. We're very optimistic about that and again we've been working very hard for many years to keep the bay clean and make sure it's suitable for this type of venture," Castellanos said.

Lobster fisherman have already figured out a way to make a living beneath the surface of the bay and the Port. The folks at Sunken Seaweed are hoping to do the same.

San Diego Bay is already an economic hub for the region but Port officials think there are ways they can broaden the bay's economic pallet.

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