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Lobstermen Diversifying through Kelp Aquaculture

Brown and glistening, curled at the edges, more than eight feet in length — who would think that a fresh strand of sugar kelp grown during the winter could be such a money maker for Maine lobstermen? Yet it is.

Kelp harvests in Maine are up due to the growth of small, individually owned kelp farms, many of them operated by lobstermen. The kelp, which is seeded and grows during the winter, provides an additional source of income for some lobstermen, many of whom fish principally in the summer and fall months. And it has the added ecological benefit of drawing dissolved carbon dioxide out of an increasingly warm and acidic Gulf of Maine.

With their on-the-water knowledge, lobstermen are finding kelp aquaculture a sound winter business. Photo courtesy of tastemaker.com.

Kelp farming is not difficult for lobstermen like Greg Morris of Port Clyde or Steve Train of Long Island, two of the lobstermen growing the algae for the Biddeford-based company, Atlantic Sea Farms. Lobstermen have the vessels and knowledge of the sea to transition into this form of aquaculture easily after their traps are hauled for the year. As Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said in a recent article, “Maine has the ability to grow a lot of kelp along its highly indented and well flushed coast. The question is, who wants to buy it?”

Atlantic Sea Farms does. Since 2018, when Briana Warner became CEO, the company has increased its purchase of kelp from 30,000 pounds a year to one million pounds in 2021. It now works with 27 contracted farmers to grow two types of kelp, sugar kelp and skinny kelp. In a very short time, the company has helped turn Maine into the nation’s top producer of seaweed.

To grow kelp, one sets an array of horizontal ropes seeded with kelp spore about seven feet below the water’s surface in late fall. The ropes are held in place by a web of surface moorings in an area leased from the state. Over the winter months the kelp grows and lengthens and is harvested in the spring. Kelp grows between three to eight pounds per foot of line. A farm of about 13,000 feet of rope can potentially bring in between $20,000 to $57,000 at harvest time.

Lobstermen contracting with Atlantic Sea Farms receive the seeded rope, assistance with the design and layout of the farm, and help throughout the season. Because lobstermen typically already have equipment such as a boat and buoys, start-up costs tend to be lower for them than for those who have never worked on the water before. Atlantic Sea Farms guarantees each lobsterman that the company will buy however much kelp is grown each spring.

While the kelp is growing, it is also providing a valuable environmental service. Nichole Price, senior research scientist and director of the Center for Seafood Solutions at Bigelow Laboratory in East Boothbay, has found that sugar kelp is extremely efficient at absorbing dissolved carbon dioxide. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in salt water increases the acidity of the water, which in turn affects the ability of shellfish to grow and maintain their calcium shells. Sugar kelp’s absorption ability is so great that it creates a low acidification zone in the area in which it grows, termed “the halo effect.”

With abundant supply and eager contractors among lobstermen, Atlantic Sea Farms is now finding ways to take nutritionally dense kelp in new market directions. It recently opened a new 27,000-square-foot facility in Biddeford for its kelp seed nursery and production work. It developed a flash-freeze process for the kelp that allows it to sell fresh, rather than dried kelp, to restaurants and other businesses, and now offers blanched, shredded, pureed, powdered, fermented, and whole-leaf raw kelp products. Atlantic Sea Farms also produces its own products, such as fermented seaweed salad, a seaweed kimchi, and most recently, cranberry and wild blueberry kelp cubes that can be used as ingredients in smoothies.

Diversity is the key to survival when you work on the coast of Maine, a lesson the lobstering community knows well. Kelp farming is one route to increased economic security taken by a growing number of lobstermen in the state.

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