Could seaweed be Greenland’s next big export? | Polarjournal
Ulrik Maki Lyberth posing with two different species of seaweed; so-called sea lettuce flakes and a species of bladderwrack. Photo: Maki Seaweed Facebook
Ulrik Maki Lyberth posing with two different species of seaweed; so-called sea lettuce flakes (right) and a species of bladderwrack. Photo: Maki Seaweed Facebook

The “climate-friendly superfood” can help remote villages battling unemployment, and its supply is seemingly endless. Local producer calls for more government support of seaweed production in Greenland.

The year was 2011 and Ulrik Maki Lyberth had just returned from the last day of reindeer hunting in Sisimiut, Greenland. All the reindeer had run away from him and the hunt had been a failure, but in his boat on the way home he suddenly spotted a seal right in front of him.

“I better not return empty-handed,” he thought, as he grabbed his rifle and shot at it. But the shot missed and the seal dove back into the water. Ulrik Maki Lyberth kept searching the quiet waters, waiting for the seal to return for air.

Before long, he found it hiding in a forest of sugar kelp, a type of edible seaweed. He sailed quietly towards it, made sure he was within shooting distance, and then shot again; this time successfully.

But as he was pulling the seal into his boat, it was as if it spoke to him. “Why don’t you use some of all the seaweed you see around you?” it asked.

It was a strange question, he thought, but as he was sailing back to town he could not get it out of his mind. And since that day in 2011, the question the seal asked him has been stuck in the forefront of his mind.

After collecting the seaweed, it needs to be dried before it can be crushed. Here is some of Ulrik Maki Lyberth's seaweed in the middle of that process. Photo: Maki Seaweed Facebook
After collecting the seaweed, it needs to be dried before it can be crushed. Here is some of Ulrik Maki Lyberth’s seaweed in the middle of that process. Photo: Maki Seaweed Facebook

Quit his teaching job

Not long after, he quit his job as a school teacher to start his own seaweed production company: Maki Seaweed.

At the time, Ulrik Maki Lyberth knew nothing about seaweed or its production but immediately started to research the topic. This research led him to some conclusions which convinced him that Greenland is an ideal place for seaweed production.

First of all, the fjords around Greenland are full of it: there are more than 200 species in the country and many of the edible ones, like the sugar kelp, grow best in cold waters.

Secondly, the local population knows where to go to collect it. In fact, as he discovered, seaweed production is ideal for Greenland’s remote villages that are dealing with unemployment and depopulation. The production does not require much education, and it can be done in remote fjords where other work is hard to come by.

“When I was trying to start seaweed production in a village near Qaqortoq, I discovered, to my surprise, that the young people there were very eager to participate. Some of their friends, who had moved to Nuuk, were even considering moving back, if they could get work there producing seaweed,” Ulrik Maki Lyberth told Polar Journal.

After it had been dried and crushed, Maki Seaweed was packaged and sold in local supermarkets. Here are three packages with licorice taste from when Maki Seaweed was still running. Photo: Maki Seaweed Facebook
After it had been dried and crushed, Maki Seaweed was packaged and sold in local supermarkets. Here are three packages with licorice taste from when Maki Seaweed was still running. Photo: Maki Seaweed Facebook

Lack of government support

In the beginning, Ulrik Maki Lyberth’s company was a success.

For a few years, he would take his boat into the fjords around Sisimiut and collect large piles of seaweed. The badges he collected would then be dried, crushed, and sold locally. He had managed to make deals for the sale with Greenland’s two largest supermarket chains: Brugseni and Pisiffik.

Those deals allowed him, for some years, to make a living selling locally produced seaweed, even winning Greenland Business Council’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2014.

But, ultimately, when the lease for the company buildings in Sisimiut ran out in 2018, Ulrik Maki Lyberth decided to cease production. Not because the company was not profitable, but because years of hard work had taken a toll on him. He felt then, and he still feels now, that the Greenland government could have done more to support a potential export industry like seaweed production.

“I wish seaweed production was taken as seriously as the tourism industry which seems to be getting all the support in the world. I wish we, too, would get some support and guidance from the government.”

“It was a great shock to me how much it required to be self-employed, and how much I had to do on my own. That I could get no support purchasing equipment like robes and machines for crushing the seaweed,” he said.

Even though his company is no longer running, Ulrik Maki Lyberth still collectcs seaweed on a regular basis. Here is a badge of sugarkelp he collected last week that is now drying on his balcony in Sisimiut, Greenland. Photo: Ulrik Maki Lyberth
Even though his company is no longer running, Ulrik Maki Lyberth still collectcs seaweed on a regular basis. Here is a badge of sugarkelp he collected last week that is now drying on his balcony in Sisimiut, Greenland. Photo: Ulrik Maki Lyberth

Royal Greenland with new seaweed project

Ulrik Maki Lyberth is now back in his job as a school teacher but that does not mean that all hope is lost for seaweed production in Greenland. For some years, the Greenland Institute of Natural Sciences have been conducting research and experiments with seaweed.

And recently, the fishery giant Royal Greenland, Greenland’s largest company, started its own seaweed production in the town of Maniitsoq north of Nuuk. Royal Greenland labeled seaweed as a “climate-friendly superfood”, highlighting its low-carbon emissions during production and the many minerals and vitamins it contains.

Currently, the largest seaweed producers in the world are in Asia. China is by far the largest producer, followed by Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines. As a consequence, Royal Greenland cannot yet compete with the prices of Asian seaweed, and instead aims to produce unique products like seaweed pesto and seaweed salad.

Due to a dispute, Ulrik Maki Lyberth and Royal Greenland are not collaborating on seaweed production. But a few foreign companies have already contacted him for advice on Greenlandic seaweed, he said.

And.should the right company present itself, Ulrik Maki Lyberth is ready to once again give up his teaching job. Because the question asked of him by that dying seal all those years ago still lingers in his mind.

“Seaweed is way too good for Greenland for me to give up on it. If you just take care of the seaweed a little. and don’t cut down all of it, you have a ‘perpetual motion machine’, or a sustainable production as you would call it nowadays,” Ulrik Maki Lyberth said.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal AG

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