By Published: May 8, 2019

‘Kelp is the future of feeding the world,’ says Markos Scheer, as he launches what he believes will be the largest U.S. kelp farm

As the world’s population continues growing from its current 7.7 billion people, finding innovative ways to provide food will be critical. Experts say aquaculture will play an important role in feeding the world’s burgeoning population, which is why CU Boulder alumnus Markos Scheer is launching a new career in kelp farming. 

Markos with kelp

Markos Scheer examines a frond of bull kelp on the shore of Alaska. Photo by Hillary Scheer. At the top of the page, Scheer is seen in his element. Photo by Kevin Sund.

Markos Scheer (PoliSci’90) was an attorney at Williams Kastner & Gibbs, a Pacific Northwest law firm based in Seattle, Washington. Scheer’s clients included seafood companies and fishermen from the Pacific Northwest to Alaska. For 20 years, as he represented clients whose livelihood was based in wild-caught seafood, Scheer learned about the untapped opportunities of mariculture, or the cultivation of fish and other marine life for food, in Alaska.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries estimates that the United States imports more than 80 percent of the seafood people eat. About half the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture. The U.S. imports more than $200 million in kelp products a year, which shows its potential ready to be used, Scheer said.

Riding the wave of popularity for seaweed products, Scheer recently launched the largest kelp farm of its kind in the United States—a 127-acre kelp and shellfish farm off of Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska. 

“Kelp is the future of feeding the world,” Scheer said. “The reason I want to grow kelp is because it has so many uses. Kelp is an amazing plant with tremendous nutritional factors. It absolutely is a superfood. It’s everything that kale is, and more. And, it tastes better. That’s my opinion.”

It’s not surprising that Scheer is interested in creating an alternative career. He has lived an unconventional life on his own terms, which has informed his venture into aquaculture.

Scheer grew up in the forests of northern Idaho with his mother, a botanist and forester. They lived a rustic lifestyle in cabins without electricity or running water. In 1982, when Scheer was 13 years old, they moved to Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska, where his mother was involved in reforestation. They lived in remote cabins, including a floathouse, again without running water and electricity.

At 16, wanting to strike out on his own, Scheer went through the legal process to become emancipated, which granted him adult status and the ability to sign contracts. With his newly won independence came the responsibility of earning a living, finding an apartment and paying his own bills.

He moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, where he got a job as a processor with Silver Lining Seafoods, a small startup company. With the money he earned, Scheer enrolled at the University of Southern California. In 1988, he transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied political science. 

After graduating in 1990, he moved back to Alaska and worked in management and operations with the same seafood company. In 1996, he started law school at the University of Idaho. After earning a law degree in 1999, he went to work for a firm focused on the seafood industry. With 12 years of practical experience and developing relationships in the seafood industry, he leveraged it all into a successful law practice for the next 20 years.

“We believe that the carbon footprint for our grow-out will be negative, meaning the plants will be taking more carbon dioxide out of the water than we will burn growing and harvesting it."

As part of his law practice at Williams Kastner, Scheer became involved with the nonprofit Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, serving as a board member for several years and helping to establish the Alaska Maricultural Initiative in 2013. After developing the business plan for the initiative and learning about the potential of mariculture, he realized that the initiative needed someone to implement the plan at commercial scale for the initiative’s goals to be met. 

“I realized I’m that guy,” he said. “I spent a couple of years raising enough capital to get the plan off the ground. I got it started and now I’m a kelp farmer.”

Scheer launched Premium Aquatics, the parent company for seaweed and oyster production. Seagrove Kelp Co. is the marketing brand for kelp. This fall he will plant his first crop of kelp—with a goal to plant more than 30 miles of seeded line to grow kelp. With a six-month growing period, his first kelp crop will be harvested in spring 2020.  

Kelp is a form of seaweed that grows in saltwater. It has long been eaten and used for medicinal purposes. Kelp is a source of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D and E, and minerals such as zinc, iodine, magnesium, iron, potassium, copper and calcium. Kelp products are also used in ice cream, salad dressing and pet food. Kelp farms can produce protein-rich foods with a significantly lower carbon footprint than a livestock farm, with no fertilizer or land. When added to cattle feed, kelp reduces cattle methane production up to 90 percent, Scheer said. 

About 650 kinds of seaweeds grow on the West Coast. Scheer will grow bull, sugar and ribbon kelp—some of the fastest-growing plants in the world, Scheer said. In the right conditions, some kelps can grow a foot a day.

“We believe that the carbon footprint for our grow-out will be negative, meaning the plants will be taking more carbon dioxide out of the water than we will burn growing and harvesting it,” he said. “It will produce oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients into the area where it grows.”

Next year, Scheer plans to add Pacific oysters into the operation. The site at Doyle Bay has a permit for raising 15 million oysters a year.

“It’s going to be really cool,” he said. “There are small operations in Maine and Alaska, but I’m not aware of anything else in North America that will be at this scale. What I love about this product is that everything is a positive to sustainably grow an indigenous species of kelp. The environment grows it for you.”

Scheer is eager to partner with CU students on research projects to study the environmental impacts of growing more than 100 acres of kelp in a single location and whether the nutritional characteristics of kelp change when grown at different sites. 

“My political science degree from CU led to me to law school,” Scheer said. “All of the components in my life were part of the learning process that gave me the confidence to jump off the dock and do this. I had no anticipation when I was 20 years old and graduating from CU that in 2019, I would be a kelp farmer in Prince Wales Island. You never know how things will turn out until you try.”

Scheer lives with his wife, a teacher, and two sons, 14 and 6, in a house with running water and electricity. 

He credits CU Boulder and his political science degree for propelling him toward law school. And he credits Amelia “Jay” Dilworth (Educ’63) who convinced him to believe in his potential to define what he wanted his life to be, and that eventually led him to CU Boulder. Dilworth was the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse Scheer attended in Alaska. 

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but she is the one that lit the fire that brought me to where I am today,” Scheer said. “When I was 15, I made the decision to make my own way and went out on my own. Jay went to CU, and that is what made me consider it.”

Scheer’s advice to CU Boulder students is to work hard, believe in yourself, take risks but be deliberate and informed about it and don’t wait for others to solve problems for you.”