It’s hard to imagine a better office than the one Jo Lane heads to each week. The crystal clear waters of Mystery Bay and Glasshouse Rocks on the NSW South Coast form the backdrop for her morning ritual of gathering the golden kelp that has washed ashore overnight.
Marine scientist Jo and her husband Warren Atkins own Sea Health Products, a small scale, family-run operation in Tilba Tilba, 3.5 hours south of Canberra, that is the epitome of sustainability.
After hand-harvesting the discarded seaweed the pair (often helped by their children Riley and Layla, and family dog Larry) pack it into a home-made motorised trolley and head back to their equally idyllic property, whose rolling pastures appear to seamlessly dissolve into dramatic Mount Gulaga in the distance.
Here, the seaweed is washed in mountain spring water and draped on custom-built wood and wire racks to dry in the sun, before being milled into a range of seasonings.
“Kelp is packed with vitamins and minerals. It’s high in iodine so it’s good for the thyroid, which controls the circulatory and digestive systems. It’s like a natural multivitamin,” says Jo, whose range of kelp-based seasonings includes Furikake (a Japanese rice seasoning with chilli and sesame seeds), Australian native finger lime and a version that has been smoked for seven hours with Australian red gum. There are also golden kelp granules and powder.
Jo says kelp is perfect sprinkled on eggs on toast, with avocado and tomato, mixed in with homemade muesli bars and bliss balls, or baked into bread or pasta. “It’s incredibly versatile. It has umami, so it brings out the flavour of whatever you put it with.”
The couple plans to branch out into selling the kelp raw, in leaf or strip form, so it can be added to soups in a similar way to kombu, used in salads or wrapped around vegetables and fish to impart its subtle flavour, and its nutrients, during cooking.
And there couldn’t be a better time to expand the business.
An Australian Seaweed Industry Blueprint released in August this year by the Australian Seaweed Institute revealed that the nation’s pristine and isolated coastal environment provides a massive opportunity for seaweed to become a sustainable, high-tech and high-value economic opportunity.
The blueprint predicts an industry worth $100 million by 2025, rising to $1 billion by 2040, which would also deliver up to 9,000 jobs and a 10 per cent emissions reduction.
Not only is seaweed on the radar of in-the-know health food aficionados, it has also been identified as a sustainable source of animal feed, fertiliser and pharmaceutical ingredients, though few Australian businesses have made it their focus.
“There are kelp and seaweed farms in Asia, Europe and America, but at the moment there are no ocean-based kelp farms in Australia,” says Jo, who is working with Warren on changing that. They have plans to establish a kelp farm pilot program as early as next April, in which they will attach seedlings to ropes moored just below the water’s surface to test their ability to grow.
That Jo finds herself at the centre of what could be a booming new industry is the result of a series of serendipitous events.
In 2012, while working for NSW Fisheries, she processed a permit for a business seeking to collect marine vegetation and became curious. She contacted the owners, bought some product and learnt as much as she could about it.
“I’ve always been a bit obsessed and passionate about the marine environment,” she says.
Little did she know that a few years later she would buy that business after reading that the owners had retired and planned to move out of the area.
Last year, good fortune shone again, when Jo won a Churchill Fellowship to study kelp farming systems across the globe. She and Warren visited farmers from the Faroe Islands and South Korea to Norway and the United States, building invaluable knowledge as they went.
The result of their endeavours can be found in an unassuming wooden shed in their rural backyard. Its rustic, navy blue and maroon exterior belies the high-tech lab within, designed and built by Warren, whose background in air-conditioning and refrigeration has proved the perfect complement to Jo’s marine biology credentials.
In the climate-controlled lab, Jo spends her time testing and researching the breeding cycle of kelp to allow them to successfully grow it at scale.
“Kelp likes to grow in cooler waters so the Far South Coast is the perfect environment for it to flourish. We have a low population, so the water is very clean, and the kelp absorbs all of its nutrients,” says Jo.
“As well as increasing our supply, setting up a kelp farm will have a real environmental benefit. We’ll be able to sequester carbon dioxide and improve the marine habitat. It will also bring jobs to the area.
“It’s a very small industry in Australia at the moment, but I hope and believe it will grow. We’re feeling really confident. This could be great not just for the South Coast, but for all of Australia.”
Sea Health Products are sold online and are available at select stockists and markets across the NSW South Coast and ACT. For more information, visit Sea Health Products.