Global Seaweed Connectivity: A Colourful Future?


By: Phoebe Lewis, Marine Science Researcher and Designer

How does a researcher in the North East of England meet the CEO of the Pacific Seaweed Industry Association (PSIA)? The answer is at a small pub on the west coast of Scotland, but it wasn’t a love of whiskey that brought us together, instead, a (healthy) obsession with seaweed which only grew during the 2023 Scottish Seaweed Industry Association (SSIA) conference held in Oban, UK.

On reflection, the SSIA conference showcased such an inspiring collection of expertise and diverse perspectives, but also highlighted how uniquely fragmented the seaweed industry really is. The UK and Canada’s seaweed industry’s unique fragmentation is largely down to them both being in their infancy. Whilst this might seem a little disheartening, it’s actually one of the most exciting aspects of the industry – we are still in a position to decide how it grows, which is not something that can be said for many other industries. That is why I first found the work of the PSIA to be so valuable, they are paving the way to connect farmers to product developers to academics to engineers to conservationists to communities and everyone in between – all under the notion of ‘let’s make this work, but actually work’. 

Fast forward 5 months and I have been fortunate enough to join Mark Smith, CEO and President, of the PSIA on Vancouver Island for a deep dive into the west coast of Canada’s seaweed industry. The opportunity for this came about after being successful in a knowledge transfer grant awarded by the Doctoral College at Newcastle University – one small step closer to global seaweed connectivity. Since arriving in Canada, Mark and I have embarked on a journey across some of the jaw-dropping scenery of Vancouver Island, meeting with industry insiders and enthusiasts to map out pathways for sustainable growth. This has been an opportunity for me, a designer now turned marine scientist, to build on my own research with international connections. My focus has always been on developing sustainable products that help restore marine ecosystems and coastal communities, most recently, this has involved extracting pigments from seaweed for commercial use in textile dyes.

Whilst each of the colour swatches in the photo above showcase my own journey of material exploration and growth in understanding, there is still a big disconnect between that and implementing a sustainable product into a well-defined supply chain. To move forward with this work and maintain alignment with my evolving climate concerns, I am developing a framework to assess the viability of new pigment sources by asking two key questions: ‘can it be done?’ and ‘should it be done?’. The former is understanding if obtaining the pigments is possible and the latter being an evaluation of the social, environmental and economic impacts at each stage of the supply chain. Embedding these simple questions across the wider context of the conversations being had with people during my time in Canada has sparked creativity and new ideas for the PSIA. One of the ideas that Mark and I are working together on is to connect the voices of the industry and create a platform in which to showcase the stories that make up this very eclectic mix of innovations, opportunities and life-long passions. Keep an eye out later this year!

I’m very grateful to have been at that pub in Oban last year and to now be working alongside the very dedicated PSIA. The conversations so far have been very encouraging to see such a strong desire to collaborate and share knowledge in the journey to a common goal – building what we hope to be a safe and sustainable, globally connected industry that protects biodiversity and empowers communities.