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Reducing Ocean Nutrient Pollution with Macroalgae: An Interview with Alyson Myers of Kegotank Farm

By Stephanie Baum

Kegotank Farm in coastal Virginia has launched a macroalgae project to grow biomass, which reduces ocean nutrient pollution and can ultimately make possible the growth of food, feed, and manufacturing material using sustainable marine resources. As the population grows, what might this mean for the global economy? What challenges does this project face? Kegotank CEO Alyson Myers explains.

Alyson, can you give us some background on Kegotank Farm?

Kegotank Farm is a 400-acre coastal farm that includes a variety of activities. It serves as a collaboration site for scientists and our own work, which often involves university researchers who are interested in adaptation or mitigation for rising sea levels.

What was the genesis of the macroalgae project?

At Kegotank Farm we also look at ways to grow biomass to reduce nutrient pollution. This is a discrete macroalgae project that takes place at Kegotank Farm and other places.

The macroalgae project emerged during the first year at Kegotank, when I started land-based and water-based trials for a year. The water-based project involved growing oysters in three different areas. One of these areas was in a shallow bay. I put oysters in the bay and when I came back to check on them, the bay was choked with biomass. What was it? Why was it growing? Why was it bothering my project? I tried to rid the area of the biomass, but the next tide would always bring it right back. This led me to investigate algae. I found a world of uses for algae, and realized I might be growing the wrong thing.

How do you define the challenge of this project?

Microalgae can cause dead zones in marine space. Our project works with macroalgae, which—in contrast—is easily harvestable and reduces the nutrient pollution that can cause dead zones. So our guiding questions are “Using macroalgae, can we reduce nutrient pollution enough to make a positive environmental impact? Nutrient pollution is a pot of gold—can we set things up so the macroalgae gets to the nutrient pollution first and removes it?”

What are dead zones, and how significant are they?

There are dead zones all over the world. As an example, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is about the size of the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Anything within that zone doesn’t have sufficient oxygen to breathe. Things that can move, like fish, may be able to swim out of that zone, but stationary organisms like oysters or mussels can’t move out of that, so in a dead zone like that, they’re going to die. Why is this important? To put it in perspective, would you expose your own health to two rooms with no oxygen in your own home? Why have we allowed this? As a society, we’re interested in economic productivity, but the issue of nutrient pollution reduces that opportunity. Within the macroalgae project, what we try to do is look at how else we can tackle the problem of nutrient pollution, which is not being tackled today.

Going back to what you said earlier, what was feeding the biomass that you found growing in the shallow bay?

All the biomass in the shallow bay was most likely growing from fertilizers in tomato fields nearby. These fertilizers flowed into that bay when it rained, and aquatic plants began to grow in the bay amidst the combination of fertilizer, water, sunlight, and the right temps. The system exploded. This was really the beginning of the project. We asked ourselves, “What if we tried to grow macroalgae on purpose, so that we could remove nutrient pollution through harvest? What would it look like? Could we stay out of the way of boats and people’s view? Could we safely do it at a scale large enough to positively impact that system?”

We have dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Chesapeake Bay, and all over the world. If we can figure out a technique to remove some portion of that nutrient pollution that causes the dead zones, we will have done something very interesting that will have huge impact.

In a practical context, why is the macroalgae project important?

The context of this work is that not only have we lost the economic productivity of these dead zones, but globally, we have a population that will increase to nine billion people by 2050. That’s a sharp increase in population growth, and we have to figure out how to provide food, feed, and materials for our [human and animal] population. We need to be able to manufacture goods, whether the goods are clothing or tools or cars. At the same time, there are land-based systems that are experiencing decreasing fresh water and more extreme climate conditions, and this interrupts agriculture. Over 60% of our fresh water is used for irrigation, and that isn’t sustainable. The salt water environment is 97% of earth’s water. So why don’t we look to that resource to grow more food, feed, and material? First, though, we need healthy systems.

What are you most passionate about surrounding your macroalgae project?

I’m most passionate about the idea of growing more things in the ocean than on land, and offering several environmental benefits while we’re doing it. I call this restorative commerce. The question behind restorative commerce is: How can we as a business do good for our environment while we create what we as humans need? How can we partner better? That’s the idea. I’m equally passionate about doing that.

Aside from desired funding, what two or three things would be most beneficial to you at this point to make the project the success you envision?

Any project is a collaboration. Every team member has expertise. First you get that team together, then you need funding to get them in motion. Various universities have offered us services and completed tasks for free, because they believe in the project, but just relying on this makes progress too slow.

I just went to a conservation finance conference; the goal of conservation finance is to connect capital with projects that are good for the environment. To achieve that, projects need to be investible, scalable, and repeatable. There’s a lot of capital looking for projects, but there are not a lot of projects finding that capital. The challenge for conservation projects is to demonstrate their product or technique, and then scale it sufficiently to make it look like other investments. That’s where we are [with this project]. We’re trying to be investible, scalable, and repeatable, but we’re coming from the point of no funding. It’s very difficult, like trying to launch into space with just ideas.

Where do you hope to be one year from now in your process if all funding needs fall into place?

I would like to have multiple projects in the water.

Where do you envision you will be five years from now if all goes as hoped and planned?

In year 1, when we’re in the water, we’re growing biomass, which gets harvested and goes through a treatment process on its way to being converted to products, whether they are food, feed, or biomaterials. I would like us to be growing biomass and have examples of products to show the market.

In year 2, we’re growing more biomass, harvesting it, and making sample products for the market.

By year 3, we’re growing and making products for market in a restorative way.

In years 4 and 5, I envision us working in other waters; internationally.

The market has asked for products, but currently we don’t have production capacity. That’s why we need funding.

What is the most frequently asked question from others about your project, and how do you answer that question?

People ask, “What are you doing?” I try to give them a short version of what I’ve just told you. The short version is that we have dead zones and they’re unacceptable, and we have to try new ideas to decrease the pollution that causes them. I believe we can do it in an economically viable way.

What is the second most frequently asked question you get, and what is the answer?

After we tell people about biomass, they usually ask, “What are you going to make out of it?” In a sense, all businesses start with your end revenue stream. You really do have to look all the way down the process at the products you’re going to make. We first asked ourselves what products we might make that are being made now through carbon-intensive processes. Instead, we’re going to take carbon out of the aquatic system that is suffering from ocean acidification resulting from carbon.

The next logical question might be “What is ocean acidification?” We have too much carbon in our air, and the oceans are absorbing it. It’s changing the chemistry of our oceans, and this change in chemistry has the potential to dramatically change the food chain. An example of that is that organisms with shells are having difficulty forming their shells. If they can’t do that, then they’re no longer a (viable) food for the things that eat them, including us.

When you talk about carbon, it’s too vague for many people. But if you talk about ocean acidification, people understand. It’s more of a concrete way of defining the problem. We can’t keep depleting our systems. It must stop.

You have an engineer coming on board to help for a few months and potentially longer. What would be the best possible outcome of your alignment with this engineer?

She is a process engineer, and there are two main ways that process integrates with this project. First, we’re setting up a process in water to grow a biomass, and the process needs to be optimized. Second, when that biomass is harvested and we’re on land, we need to rinse it, dry it, and turn it into products. It’s important to accomplish these processes as efficiently and economically as possible. My hope is that the process engineer can help in both those regards.  

What creative plans are in the works that you can tell us more about? We understand that you use music, dance, and drones.

I mentioned that we use the farm as a collaborative space for scientists. A key part of this work is getting the message out to people. We need more and different ways to engage the public in our environmental challenges. One is through the arts. We’ve offered to many musicians and composers to come out to the farm, spend time in that space, and create what they like with the purpose of conveying the environment to an audience. We hope to use drones to create images of the farm because the environment is so beautiful.

Everything we do is hard, but it’s fun. If we can convey that to the public, we all may make better progress together, faster.

How have you shared information about your work on this project with the public?

Last year, we participated in a boardwalk arts show in Virginia Beach. We had paper and paintings and biomass all laid out on a table in front of the Atlantic Ocean, in front of a statue of Neptune. We just greeted people and said, “Here’s what we’re doing; what do you think?” Kids from ages 3-18 would come, pick up the biomass, and look at it, and we asked them what we should do with it. They LOVED it. Every kid had an idea! One kid threw it around his neck and suggested that we make scarves. A three-year-old suggested that we make carrots, and I responded, “We can do that by turning the biomass into fertilizers and growing carrots!” People like to be engaged in the process, and spreading our message through the arts is important to this. I believe that we must have this discussion on many tracks, including scientific and artistic. Ideally, it takes place at the community level as well as with students and established scientists. This is really our collective project; even the kid who is three and wants to grow carrots!