Abstract We present distribution coefficients, logiKS, for the sorption of yttrium and the rare earth elements (YREEs) on BCR-279, a dehydrated tissue homogenate of a marine macroalga, Ulva lactuca, resembling materials featured in chemical engineering studies aimed at designing renewable biosorbents. Sorption experiments were conducted in NaCl solutions of different ionic strength (0.05, 0.5, and 5.0M) at T=25°C over the pH range 2.7–8.5. Distribution coefficients based on separation of the dissolved and particulate phase by conventional filtration (<0.22μm) were corrected for the effect of colloid-bound YREEs (>3kDa) using an existing pH-dependent model. Colloid-corrected values were renormalized to free-cation concentrations by accounting for YREE hydrolysis and chloride complexation. At each ionic strength, the pH dependence of the renormalized values is accurately described with a non-electrostatic surface complexation model (SCM) that incorporates YREE binding to three monoprotic functional groups, previously characterized by alkalimetric titration, as well as binding of YREE–hydroxide complexes (MOH2+) to the least acidic one (pKa∼9.5). In non-linear regressions of the distribution coefficients as a function of pH, each pKa was fixed at its reported value, while stability constants of the four YREE surface complexes were used as adjustable parameters. Data for a single fresh U. lactuca specimen in 0.5M NaCl show generally the same pH-dependent behavior but a lower degree of sorption and were excluded from the regressions. Good linear free-energy relations (LFERs) between stability constants of the YREE–acetate and YREE–hydroxide solution complex and surface complexes with the first and third functional group, respectively, support their prior tentative identifications as carboxyl and phenol. A similar confirmation for the second group is precluded by insufficient knowledge of the stability of YREE–phosphate complexes and a perceived lack of YREE binding in 0.05M NaCl; this issue awaits further study. The results indicate that SCMs can be successfully applied to sorbents as daunting as marine organic matter. Despite remnant challenges, for instance resolving the contributions of individual groups to the aggregate sorption signal, our approach helps formalize seaweed’s avowed promise as an ideal biomonitor or biofilter of metal pollution in environments ranging from freshwaters to brines by uncovering what chemical mechanisms underlie its pronounced affinity for YREEs and other surface-reactive elements.