Chance Meeting on Ferry leads to Seafood Business opportunity for Bainbridge Entrepreneurs
Sometimes life is serendipities and chance meetings turn into legitimate opportunities. That’s more or less what happened with the evolution of Blue Dot Sea Farms – a grower and harvester of shellfish and kelp that is doing its bit to help stave off ocean acidification.
The aquaculture farm – located just off of Hood Head on the Hood Canal – has been operating since 2019, but the idea emerged nearly two decades ago when one of its three Bainbridge Island principals – Michael Rosenthal – spotted a pick-up truck next to his vehicle on the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry run “with a bunch oysters” in the back.
Some of you may recognize Rosenthal as co-owner with wife, Alexa, of Island Fitness, the popular workout space in Downtown Winslow. But back then, he was winding down a 20-year career as a crab ship captain in the Bering Sea and was looking for another aquatic adventure. When he returned to the ferry deck that day, he began talking with Joth Davis, the oyster hauler, and before long the two were exchanging information and ideas. A short time later, Davis, a scientist, and himself owner of a family shellfish company, found a five-acre site on the Canal – that would eventually become Blue Dot Sea Farms – and the two purchased it.
“At the time we both had other things going on,” recalls Rosenthal. “We tried things and had a lot of spectacular failures.” Over the next 20-plus years or so, the appetite for kelp – in particular – gained wider acceptance in the marketplace as an accepted food source. So pre-Pandemic, Rosenthal, Davis, and another partner – Bainbridge lawyer and environmentalist Jon Kroman – started seeing the potential of the sea farm, not only as a business venture, but also as a way to grow sustainable food and give back to Mother Earth.
Simply put, kelp sequesters carbon from the ocean and “de-acidifies the water,” Rosenthal says. “You can imagine if you had hundreds of kelp beds growing (around the Puget Sound) what that would do to help” our water quality. During his previous career harvesting crabs, Rosenthal laments that he “took” from the ocean’s bounty. Now with Blue Dot he has a chance to do just the opposite. “We’re not taking from the environment, we’re putting back into it,” he says.
As small as it is, the sea farm is the only permanent kelp or seaweed growing site in Washington State, and it already is producing a successful product – Seacharrones, a puffed treat made from dried kelp that is certified organic, vegan and gluten-free. Seacharrones are made by Blue Dot Kitchen, a subsidiary company, and are being sold at venues such as Lumen Field (where the Seahawks play) and Climate Pledge Arena, as well as local outlets like the Willowtree Market, Bay Hay & Feed and Walt’s Market on Bainbridge. Customers can also order them online at Seacharrones | Vegan Sea-Farmed Kelp Puffs
“They’re a very clean snack food,” says Rosenthal.
“People like them with beer, kids like them,” adds Kroman, of Seacharrones. “We want to distinguish ourselves by making seaweed food that is acceptable to the masses.” Kroman has done both legal work and volunteering for organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Washington Clean Energy Alliance and Seattle Climate Partnership, among others. He sees his association with Blue Dot as one way to begin to turn the tide of food production towards sustainable food options.
“Capitalism is a powerful way to address environmental problems in a positive way,” he says. “We try to walk that walk… just saying, ‘don’t screw up the planet’, isn’t good enough anymore.”
Kroman, for one, points out the “enormous potential” in using seaweed for the development of fuels, fertilizers, feedstock, organic pesticides and many other uses. “There’s a vast promise (in those areas) in a business sense,” he says, “but it’s at a very early stage.”
All the kelp now grown at the sea farm is used in the production of Seacharrones, with Blue Dot sourcing additional seaweed from places as far away as Alaska. Its oysters are mostly sold through Joth’s company, Baywater Shellfish. Early on, Davis was able to secure a research grant from the Paul Allen Foundation that helped bootstrap the start-up, but now it’s seeking additional funding to keep growing.
“The investment is needed to grow more oysters and kelp,” Rosenthal says. “We’re cruising along (now), but we need to expand to maximize the site. We’re not there yet.”
Down the road, in say five years, Kroman envisions Blue Dot with a portfolio of food products that will be “appealing to many, many folks… We think it’s doable: the marketing, the scaling up and selling” of new products. “If we do this right,” he adds somewhat philosophically, “the way we build sustainability into our business model will be part of our appeal (to customers and potential investors). We’re basically building a food products company that (now) does not exist.”
*Image credits: Blue Dot Sea Farms and Seacharrones websites
This article appeared in a previous issue of Tideland Magazine.
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