After establishing one of Australia’s most successful craft breweries, Cam Hines’s next project is Australia’s first commercial kelp farm, off the Victorian coast. By Richard Cornish.
Establishing Australia’s first commercial kelp farm
Cam Hines used to dive in the giant kelp forests at Shoreham Beach on the Mornington Peninsula. As a boy he would snorkel, losing himself in the pulsing, waving fronds.
Those forests are gone. Feral sea urchins and warming sea temperatures have devastated kelp in Western Port and Port Phillip Bay, south of where Hines was born in Melbourne.
The co-founder and former joint owner of Mountain Goat Beer has a vision to return giant kelp to the bays near his childhood home and, in doing so, help make a sustainable food of this regenerative source of protein – which also sequesters carbon. Globally the commercial seaweed industry is worth an estimated $28 billion.
Last year, he teamed with scientist Rob Brimblecombe and Brent “Bert” Cross, a former diver with the Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Branch – Australia’s answer to the United States Navy SEALs – to form Southern Seagreens.
This week, they pulled Australia’s first harvest of commercially farmed kelp from the cool, clear waters off the Western Port town of Flinders. At present, 500 kilograms of giant kelp is being harvested, dried and packaged. Over the next few months, it will be on the shelves of food stores and on the tables of some of our nation’s best restaurants.
Hines compares Australia’s seaweed industry to the craft brewing business.
“You look to the Pacific Coast of the US and New England and that is where chefs and kelp farmers are working together to create a new industry,” he says. “And that is exactly where the craft brewing movement began back in the 1990s.”
When he founded the Mountain Goat brewery with Dave Bonighton in 1997 there was just a handful of craft breweries in Australia. Now there are more than 700 across the country, Hines says.
He and Bonighton sold the business to Japanese beer behemoth Asahi in 2015 for an undisclosed sum, although afterwards Tim Cooper of Coopers Brewery told industry publication Brews News Australia: “We’ve only heard rumours on how much Asahi paid for Mountain Goat, but from what we understand it was quite a lot.”
Hines founded Mountain Goat with sustainability at its heart, starting with disused fermenting tanks sourced from a defunct microbrewer.
He is following the same path of slow, sustainable growth with Southern Seagreens and its pilot processing plant in an industrial estate in Dromana on the Port Phillip Bay side of the peninsula.
The drying rooms are recycled shipping containers he found on Facebook Marketplace, the sink from Gumtree, the wooden cladding from a farm. These share the site with the truck and barge of Cross’s diving and underwater survey business.
The partnership began to come together when Hines heard Cross being interviewed by Melbourne radio host Neil Mitchell in 2021. Cross was already delving into the world of regenerative aquaculture, inspired by the film 2040. Hines was ready to start a new venture after eight years on the sidelines acting as a business mentor and consultant. “I had been suppressing my entrepreneurial urges too long,” he says with a dry smile. Cross adds, “I have the underwater skills but not the time or the business experience. And I knew Rob [Brimblecombe] from when I was working in Lakes Entrance. He knows kelp.”
The kelp the trio are farming is an unusual beast. Giant kelp, or macrocystis pyrifera, looks like a plant but is an alga. A holdfast roots the central spine to the rocky sea floor, and flat, fleshy blades float in the water, buoyed by bubble-like cysts. The blades face the sun and green chloroplasts inside absorb sunlight to split carbon dioxide and water molecules to form oxygen and long chain starch molecules. In other words, kelp makes oxygen and sequesters carbon. This makes it an essential part of the planet’s ecosphere and central to the concept of blue carbon.
“It still blows my mind that we can create a sea farm that will also act as habitat for fish, crustaceans, tiny molluscs,” says Brimblecombe, the former head of Monash University’s engineering and net zero team, who leads the Southern Seagreens crew in propagating kelp.
First, Cross dives to remnant patches of kelp growing off the beaches of the Mornington Peninsula and takes a few blades back to the lab – a small room made of recycled insulated sandwich panels in the loft of Cross’s storage shed. Under sterile conditions, the spore-bearing parts of the kelp are stressed to release spores that combine and form tiny kelps in a saline solution. A twine-like cord is soaked in the solution for six weeks to allow the kelp to grow on it, and then threaded around heavy nylon ropes that are trucked down to Flinders and suspended from buoys anchored a few kilometres offshore. There the kelp grows in the water column, feeding off suspended nutrients until, after three to four months, it is several metres in height and ready for harvest.
While the team were waiting for the first commercial harvest of farmed kelp to mature in the gentle swell rolling in from Bass Strait, they decided to experiment with another type of kelp. Undaria is a feral variety that arrived in Port Phillip Bay in the ballast of boats from Japan, where it is known as wakame and used as a salad with sesame seeds, or dried and added to miso soup for flavour. Undaria is as invasive as blackberries, boneseed or boxthorn and can outcompete native kelp.
It also grows in water shallow enough to entice Hines to don his snorkelling gear once again and “flap about underwater with a knife”, as he puts it. Diving off the beaches of the Mornington Peninsula in water three metres deep, he cuts the blades and sporophyll, the reproductive organs of the water weed, to help reduce its ability to breed. “We are not building a business around this invasive species,” he says. “It’s transitional cashflow. While it’s proliferating in spring we’ll harvest and help give the native species in the bay a chance.”
The Southern Seagreens team has already commercialised the invasive kelp, selling the dried wakame in packets, mixed with spices and Australian native botanicals to make its version of the Japanese condiment furikake. One of the first retailers to sell the product is farmer and grocer Sophie O’Neill of Torello Farm, a farm gate at Dromana.
“I’ve long been a fan of wakame and knowing the Southern crew are removing an invasive species from our waters just encourages me to eat more,” says O’Neill, a sustainable food advocate. She says sales of the furikake are going well. “When customers learn about the work that Cam and the team are doing they are immediately curious, but because wakame and furikake might be unfamiliar to them we’ve created recipes on our socials and website.”
One of the first chefs to work with the wakame and trial batches of farmed kelp is Aaron Schembri, of Kadota in Daylesford. The award-winning Japanese restaurant is named after his wife, who led him to Japan where he worked at Hajime, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Osaka. “I was super surprised how good it is,” Schembri says of the Southern Seagreens wakame. “It is full of umami and so much more flavoursome than the Japanese product. It shows just how good our waters are.” He has served a steamed bun filled with miso-roasted crab with a wakame and crab consommé, and has used trial harvests of the farmed native kelp in dashi.
“The food industry is focusing on lab-grown meat, while we should be doing more regenerative farming of kelp at sea. This product makes sense on so many levels.”
For the Southern Seagreens team, it is early days. It expects to grow and harvest another tonne of farmed kelp next year. In the US, some farmers produce 50 times that amount.
“We’re pioneering so much all at once,” admits Hines, with reflective concern. “We’re not only the first to commercially breed, nurture and farm this sort of kelp, we’re at the same time working out how to process it and develop a market where there isn’t one.”
Cross shoots him a smile. “If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth it.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Kelp wanted".
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