AgriSea CEO Clare and Chief Innovation Officer Tane (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato-Tainui) Bradley’s focus has always been on protecting the underwater forest of Aotearoa, but their days are often spent in the laboratory and the boardroom.
The couple recently bought a simple caravan where they can hear the waves and smell the ocean, less than half an hour’s drive from their growing production factory, laboratory, and offices in Paeroa.
A staff of around 40 works in its regional location - bringing steady employment and science jobs to the town of 5,000 that’s most famous for a soft drink called L&P.
Globally, the value of the seaweed market is close to $20 billion, with the bulk biomass farmed in Asia and turned into food products and ingredients.
There’s little point in New Zealand competing with a global seaweed market that has remained relatively static over the past decade at US$2500 per tonne weight by capitalising on relatively low labour costs to farm and process seaweed in Asia.
“The seaweed sector in Aotearoa New Zealand is currently experiencing a high level of interest and recent reports produced from the from Sustainable Seas National Science challenge have described both the current constraints and opportunities for the sector,” says Tane.
“Aquaculture is the only way we’re going to grow a seaweed sector sustainably in New Zealand.”
Reflecting on all that’s currently happening in the seaweed space, Clare is taking an hour between zoom meetings and interviews to try and summarise the past, present, and future of New Zealand’s underwater forests of seaweed.
The Bradleys say that for New Zealand to have a meaningful and long-term sustainable seaweed sector, we must focus on the uniqueness of our species, and attain product differentiation and high value uses for this taonga (treasured possession) that returns economically as well as socially, environmentally, and culturally.
New Zealand has almost 1000 types of seaweed, or rimurimu in te reo Māori, and its importance should not be overlooked.
“Other high value fisheries such as snapper and crayfish rely on the forest of the sea,” Clare says.
“Not only that, seaweed is important for our whole marine ecosystem and even our atmosphere as it draws down carbon. We must take a precautionary approach in our wild stocks – the ramifications are far too great.
“We want to create the maximum value in New Zealand for our people and make sure we take time to learn from our wins and mistakes with on-land agriculture systems.”
Clare is the inaugural Chair of the new Aotearoa New Zealand Seaweed Association (ANZSA) which grew from a meeting organised by Aquaculture New Zealand in Nelson in July 2021.
“Seaweed is a new sector and we’ve got the ability to just take a moment and think about what incredible looks like,” she says.
ANZSA’s goal is an enduring industry based on building trust in the sector, through honourable practices and commitment to quality standards. The same applies to relationships with Maori, whose matauranga, or knowledge, can both unlock and protect the rich benefits of seaweed.
“Western Science, Mātauranga Māori, local practitioner knowledge and international perspectives will all contribute to the success of the industry.”“Maori need to be equal in their partnership, through the knowledge that they’re contributing. Without this input we can’t and shouldn’t do it.”
AgriSea is working on a project to give local communities the right to license and use the technology and intellectual property that’s been created.
“People are yet to realise the true importance and potential of our seaweeds. Why would we not want to keep our forests standing and support them to multiply?”, Tane says.
“We can grow seaweed and innovate alongside, it’s a win-win. It’s more than a superfood; it can be such a solution for mankind from alternatives to plastic, high nutrition food, medicine, and for cleaning up our waterways- if done in the right way.
“It’s part of a circular economy, a blue economy, where we can improve water quality while producing high value food and medicines.”
AgriSea has come a long way from its early years making liquid brew for use by home gardeners, utilising just one incredible example of those 900-plus seaweeds; Ecklonia radiata (common kelp).
The brew was perfected by the company’s founders, Jill Bradley (mother to Tane) and husband Keith Atwood, and in the past 15 years AgriSea has focused on rigorous science and innovation. It is now celebrating 25 years.
Bradley established the predecessor to ANZSA as a safeguard for wild stocks being brought into the quota management system.
“We thought years ago that the Quota Management System would be the worst thing possible for managing seaweed as it could destroy the marine environment and all those high value fisheries that rely on the forest of the sea,” says Clare.
Bradley is known throughout New Zealand for her tenacity and environmental advocacy and made it clear two decades ago that she would not stand by and let deforestation of New Zealand’s underwater version of the Amazon rainforest.
Tane’s father Taonui also works in the business and is a sounding board for him and Clare, supporting multiple pillars of the business with his intergenerational knowledge of tikanga, te reo Māori, and whakapapa.
AgriSea’s cornerstone seaweed-based product is used by the New Zealand agricultural industry as a biostimulant, a type of soil input applied to land and which stimulates a plant's natural process. According to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), biostimulants enhance or benefit plant nutrient uptake or efficiency, tolerance to stress, and improve crop quality.
AgriSea also produces animal health supplements. Recent research from Lincoln University has published the efficacy of their products including ruminant health and urinary nitrogen reduction. Their goal to focus on innovation and a circular, zero waste industry led them to develop gels from the waste stream in the manufacture of agricultural products.
This project started when Tane and Clare were speakers at Matariki X and had a chance meeting with husband-and-wife science duo Marie-Joo Le Guen and Stefan Hill from Crown Research Institute Scion. A further Fellowship Grant and Bioprocessing Alliance injection helped AgriSea commercialise IP in partnership with Scion, turning a previously low-value product stream into high-value hydrogels – with potential applications in everything from wound care to replacing petrochemicals in seedling gels.