As part of a series highlighting the work of young people in addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews Kennedy Nikel, a marine biologist working at Cascadia Seaweed.

Kennedy Nikel holds two common seaweeds found in the Pacific Northwest (rockweed in her right hand and bull kelp in her left). Photo by Wolfgang Depner

Kennedy Nikel

Kennedy Nikel’s work helping to save the world’s oceans ended her climate grief. This 24-year-old marine biologist is using seaweed to design critical solutions to problems caused by climate breakdown.

Tell us about your work.

I work at Cascadia Seaweed, which, although it only launched in 2019, is now Canada’s largest ocean seaweed farming company. We strive to be a beacon of hope for others because we can see such potential. I also volunteer with the Pacific Seaweed Growers Association as director of development.

What is so exciting about seaweed?

Seaweed is a nutritious, delicious food, a cleaning agent for human-introduced ocean toxins, a repair agent for ecosystem damage caused by fin and shellfish farming, and excellent salmonid habitat. Oceans 2050 has noted its potentially transformative role in de-acidifying the oceans and acting as a seriously effective carbon sink. It also helps buffer coastlines from wave damage caused by extreme weather events. It is used for medicine, cosmetics and biofuel. It is showing great promise as a substitute for plastics. Fed in small amounts to cattle, it radically reduces their methane production, lowers feed costs and improves their health. It is easy and regenerative to grow. There are hundreds of species of seaweed, and we only know a few of them. I am excited every day to discover more ways to grow it and to harvest for more uses.

Cultivating seaweed helped this young woman cure the #climate blues. #sustainability #seaweed #ClimateCrisis

Do seaweed farmers harvest the seaweed already in the oceans?

To grow seaweed, you just cut the dark strip (the reproductive tissue from wild kelp) from a blade, lightly dry it and chill it overnight. This encourages the release of zoospores when the strip is rehydrated in seawater. The zoospores are both male and female gametes — which form a baby kelp called a sporophyte. We grow the baby kelp in an aquarium for about a month, and once they are hardy enough, we replant them in the ocean. In only five months or so, you have a harvestable crop. To avoid depleting wild stocks, we cultivate rather than harvest local seaweed.

Indigenous people have understood and farmed seaweed for thousands of years and are very much in leadership in this industry. We are blessed to have First Nations partners to teach us as we go along.

It is very easy for women to grow as starters are close to the seashore and no heavy equipment or particular training is needed. This means marginalized communities can be sustained while empowering women.

Kennedy Nikel with Jennifer Clark, team members at Cascadia, collecting sori (reproductive kelp tissue) for the fall 2020 kelp season. Photo submitted by Kennedy Nikel

How did you become interested in seaweed?

When I was leaving university, I had real climate grief. I had a degree in marine biology and the future did not look good. What work could I do that could possibly make a difference? Would it be safe to consider starting a family? These are common concerns amongst my generation, but they are not talked about enough. My dad works in technology and is so excited to go to work every day. I really wanted that, but I had trouble believing that was realistic for me.

Things began to shift for me when Bill Collins, chair of Cascadia, dropped by the aquarium where I volunteered with a spool of seaweed for our exhibits. I was intrigued and began learning more. With his support, I was offered a volunteer position with the not-for-profit Pacific Seaweed Industry Association. A few months later, Cascadia offered me a job building a business case for using seaweed to reduce bovine greenhouse gas emissions. Bill took a chance on me, and as I learned more about how I could amplify the amazing possibilities offered by seaweed and actually make a difference, I started to feel better. “Hope” is my middle name, and now I feel it.

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Figure out what fills up your heart right now and do that. Happiness might not be the right goal because there are bumps in every road. But climate change solutions require all of us, and we all have different ways to contribute. If your heart is full, you will find a path.

I am an introvert. I have learned that you don't have to have a loud voice to make a difference. You just have to have the right people listening.

Kennedy Nikel with her diving partner and significant other, Riley Bowen. Photo submitted by Kennedy Nikel

What would you like to say to older people?

If someone younger reaches out to you, support them. Working with Cascadia Seaweed and Pacific Seaweed Industry Association is an opportunity to make a difference in generations of coastal communities. Although I am young, my team members encourage me to succeed and are always there to support my endeavours. I do make mistakes, but in this environment my mistakes are seen as valuable opportunities for us all to learn. I encourage older people to cultivate a similar environment for younger people to thrive in and for generations to work collaboratively to create a prosperous future.