How Sam Elsom’s Seaweed Start Up Is Fighting Climate Change
by Stephanie Williams
With an established career in the fashion industry, Sam Elsom didn’t expect a conference call with climate scientist Tim Flannery to result in a move to aquaculture. Sam is now cultivating a native Tasmanian seaweed to sequester carbon and help reduce methane emissions from Australia’s meat, wool and dairy industries.
How did the Sea Forest project begin? I first learnt about seaweed from Tim Flannery. I met Tim through the Climate Council and mutual friends. He suggested seaweed is a solution to climate change. There is a finite amount of time to act, with seaweed being a known solution. Sea Forest started with a goal to be the first commercial supplier of a special native seaweed called Asparagopsis which through cultivation has the capacity to capture carbon dioxide through feeding a supplement to livestock that eliminates methane emissions. Even though it’s not naturally in my wheelhouse, it’s something I could jump on. I was driven by the impact. Australia is one of the most abundant places in the world for seaweed. We have more species than anywhere else. And with so much diversity it’s interesting that we don’t have a seaweed agriculture industry, apart from those who have a permit to collect it off the beach. No-one is cultivating it like we are now. We don’t know that much about our native seaweed. There’s 14,000 species of seaweed and 9,000 are red!
How does it work? It’s a two-pronged approach between capturing carbon and eliminating methane which is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally. Seaweed captures CO2 via photosynthesis and 30 per cent of the biomass we harvest is carbon sequestered from the water. The fastest growing plant on the planet is a seaweed that’s native to Australia. Of all plants in the world! Unlike trees, the entire organism photosynthesises, whereas with trees, it’s just the leaves. We’re harvesting every eight weeks, so we have a great potential positive environmental impact. A very small amount of it is used to feed to animals, which helps eliminates methane.
We’re at 90 per cent on a commercial scale, in the labs they can achieve 98 per cent. The average cow produces four tonnes of carbon per year and if they eat 30 grams of seaweed a day, they effectively eliminate methane. It’s a small amount of seaweed for a big result in emissions reduction.
What have been some of the challenges and highlights? Building Sea Forest with my co-conspirator Stephen Turner has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences. Every week we are making new and novel discoveries in the world of seaweed, surrounded by remarkably intelligent individuals while pioneering the development of a new environmentally positive industry for Tasmania as well as working with Tasmanian dairy, beef and Merino farmers. We are the first company in Australia to commercially harvest seaweed and we’re the only commercial supplier of Asparagopsis in the world.
Before Sea Forest you had been working in a creative capacity with some big Aussie brands, including a stint designing for The Upside. Does any of your previous career enter into the work you’re doing now? My time in the rag trade was tremendously rewarding, working with major international brands and with a specific focus not only on design but on sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of the supply chain. Interestingly Sea Forest is now working with Australian high-end fashion brand MJ BALE to create the first carbon-neutral suiting line from wool grown by seaweed-fed Merino sheep. It’s fantastic to see all industries collaborating towards a more sustainable future.
And I hear Mick Fanning was an early backer of your project. Mick is a passionate environmental advocate who was already doing great work through lending his voice and support to climate change as an ambassador for Wild Ark. When I spoke to Mick about Sea Forest he was really excited to get involved. We’ve got such a great bunch of people in the business.
What effect does growing the seaweed in the ocean have on the surrounding marine environment? Do you need to fertilise it or use chemicals to protect its growth? Seaweed cultivation is low impact and is referred to as zero-input crop which means it does not require fertiliser or fresh water. Unlike traditional terrestrial farming, it’s not impacted by fires, floods or droughts. Seaweed requires three basic elements to thrive – seawater, sunlight and CO2. Seaweed forests provide shelter and habitat for marine life as well as de-acidifying the ocean through photosynthesis.
In my research I came across a team from the University of the Sunshine Coast who were growing Asparagopsis in tanks and hoping to head offshore. Have you been part of their trials or independent? Is this seaweed native to Australia or are there other people growing it overseas too? Seaweed is an $11 billion global industry – it is approximately $2 million industry in Australia. This is largely because of the nine – 12 major species commercially cultivated around the world are North Hemisphere epidemic and cannot be grown in Australian waters. Asparagopsis is wildly abundant and can be grown in Tasmania. While research is taking place around the world, we don’t expect marine farming of Asparagopsis anywhere else in the world.
Does the seaweed have the same effect on other animals and humans? I’d like some for my boys if it does… No, seaweed only works on ruminants, unless your boys have four stomachs…
Why Triabunna and why Tasmania? Seaweed is wildly abundant and less seasonal. Tasmania has a rich diversity in seaweed species – and a natural population of Asparagopsis, but does not have the seasonality of other parts of Australia. Tasmania’s pristine waters provide the perfect environment to be cultivated all year round. We started in a lab because we needed to understand how to grow it. We’re fortunate to have leased space from Spring Bay Seafoods in Triabunna, who grow mussels. We leased hatchery and lab space and slowly as we’ve learned and developed methods for cultivation expanded our footprint there and have taken over the entire site. And transferring the employment of a lot of the staff here to Sea Forest. Everybody is really receptive.
Everything starts with people’s attitude and optimism is a big part of that. The Spring Bay Mill is our neighbour – that was a relic of an industry (wood chipping) that was pillaging Tasmania and then on the other side our neighbour is the old fish meal processing plant. They previously collected massive quantities of Red Mackerel to turn into meal. That’s shut down too. These two industries creating harm – and now we’re in the middle creating a new, more positive industry. We have enough marine lease here in Tasmania to feed half the population of Australia’s feedlot dairy and cattle.
I imagine partnering with meat and dairy producers would be a natural step. Is this something you’re working on? We are proud to be underway with two major trials with the seaweed here in Tasmania. The first with Merino wool farmer Simon Cameron from the Tasmanian Midlands area of Kingston, the second from Fonterra, feeding Richard Gardner’s dairy cattle. The appetite of farmers to engage with the solution to methane emissions has been overwhelming and a sign that everyone recognises they have a role to play in reducing global emissions.
Is there a way that consumers will know that their products have been produced with lower emissions? Sea Forest is working with the Clean Energy Regulator to allow farmers access to carbon credits from the use of Asparagopsis – which will enable them to make carbon-neutral claims to consumers.
Are you working on any other projects or products? We have built a team comprising of the world’s leading seaweed scientists. They’re pioneering the development of a new and environmentally positive seaweed aquaculture here in Tasmania. This is not limited to Asparagopsis, we are also looking at the cultivation of a myriad of other species.
Where are you based? At the moment I’m between Sydney and Triabunna.
You have two kids, and your wife Sheree Commerford has a prominent profile. How does the juggle look for you? It’s a great question. It’s true. There’s always a sacrifice that’s required when you’re building something. And that’s true of all families, not just mine. All of our family, including my two kids, are passionate about the environment and climate change, so they’re excited. My kids are as engaged as I am. It’s cool to come home and show them videos and educate them. But I’m around less. My wife is an incredible creative and she’s also an amazing mother. She’s having to do more as we build Sea Forest and I’m grateful to her for doing that. I think it would be different if I was working as a FIFO in the mines. Maybe she’d feel differently of the worthiness of the sacrifice. She’s got a passion for it, which helps the cause.
When you’re in Tassie, what are some of your favourite things to do? I love food, wine and adventure and Tassie has an abundance of these things. Recently I was mountain biking in St Helens on the Blue Tier Trail with our chief scientific officer Dr Rocky de Nys. We had an amazing ride through the temperate forest. I also really enjoy surfing at Cloudy Bay.
You can find out more about Sea Forest and Sam’s work here.