Saccharina / Laminaria is commonly referred to as ‘kelp’. It was not only the first domesticated species, with domestic production starting as early as the 1950s, but also accounts for the largest production volumes globally today. As a temperate brown seaweed, Saccharina is only farmed during winter months, however fast growth rates allow for high yields per production area.
Japanese kelp, sea tangle, haidai (in China), dashima (in Korea), kombu or makombu (in Japan)
Laminaria japonica or Saccharina japonica
Brown seaweeds (Phaeophyceae)
Japanese kelp grows in temperate cold water zones and is native to the northwest coasts of the Pacific Oceans. It naturally grows well in depths up to 10 m or more depending on the light penetration in the water column. In the wild, the life of Japanese kelp spans across 2 winters (2 years), however in farm conditions it is conventionally only grown through one winter.
Human Food: a staple food in East Asia, often served with fish and meat dishes or as base for broths (dashi) and soups.
Extraction of alginate (hydrocolloid) used to be a major demand driver, however has reduced significantly over the past 20 years, since other (imported) wild harvested brown seaweeds provide a more cost efficient supply than farmed kelp.
Aquaculture feed: abalone, sea urchins, sea cucumber feed
Saccharina plays a very important role in Chinese seaweed production. Volumes have over the past two decades steadily increased and, according to FAO data, China produced 11 million tonnes wet weight in 2020 (FAO). The ‘China Fishery Statistical Yearbook’ states production volumes only in dry weight (1,651,573 tonnes in 2020) and a conversion factor of 15% applied to get to the FAO wet weight volumes.
Production outlook: although the Chinese government has supported the scaling of the industry since the early 1950s, today the large-scale industry is under pressure from strict environment protection regulations concerning coastal marine ecology, total biomass, water pollution and conflicts with other offshore industries. Between November 2021 and April 2022, red tides brought toxic levels of phosphorus into a major farming region, causing losses over 30 million USD, with potential permanent losses as some farmers opted to not restart farming activities.
Saccharina production in South Korea has seen steady increases over the past 20 years, to an annual production of 600,000-700,000 tonnes fresh weight. The steady increase in production is due to the fact that the abalone industry has been growing and demanding fresh feed. At least 70% of fresh kelp in South Korea is directly fed to abalone.
Production outlook: production volumes will be highly dependent on the growth or decline of the abalone sector. Beyond that, farmers are becoming older and not many have successors, while also the farm sites are limited and no more licences are being granted. A growth in farming would have to take place further offshore, which is costly.
Wild collection in Japan is still relatively high, although the overall production is declining. Saccharina production reached 230,000 tonnes in 1992, of which 73,000 tonnes were farmed and 157,000 tonnes were collected from the wild. Since then production has continued to decrease to roughly 30,000 tonnes farmed and 45,0000 tonnes of wild collection.
Production outlook: Japanese Saccharina (royal kombu) is known for high quality and is traded as a specialty product rather than a commodity. However, demand for kombu is not increasing and production volumes are likely to reduce even further, given that most farmers are in their 70s and without successors.
The high-level supply chain overview for Saccharina
This supply chain illustration only applies to the two main uses for Saccharina today: human food and aquaculture feed. Alginate is mainly processed from wild harvested seaweed and therefore not included in this overview.
Input suppliers: farmers need equipment such as lines, ties, buoys and anchors, as well as seed material from dedicated seed companies or their own hatcheries. Equipment is easily available through local shops, which provide all materials required to build the cultivation system.
Farmers: either companies or family farmers. Learn more about the farmers and the cultivation process in our farm insights chapter. In Japan and South Korea most Saccharina farming is done by family farmers.
In Japan being part of a fishery cooperative is mandatory and all product sales go through the auctions organised by the cooperative.
In South Korea roughly 70% of the Saccharina is sold directly to neighbouring abalone farms as fresh feed. The rest is sold to processors that turn the seaweed into a variety of product forms for human consumption through retail stores and consumer wholesale markets.
In Japan, retailers and consumer wholesalers participate in the auctions of the fishery cooperatives to secure their supply of Saccharina products, which are then sold on to restaurants, or directly to consumers for consumption at home.