Kelp, green and nutritious, could be Maine's ticket into a multibillion-dollar global aquaculture industry.
The state's nascent seaweed business is thriving, experts say, and that puts Maine in a front-row seat as the U.S. market for homegrown sea veggies grows. It could also help provide an alternative source of income for lobster fishermen subject to the constant challenges of fluctuating prices, changing ocean temperatures and unpredictable catches.
"I worry every year that the price is going to drop out," said Karen Cooper, who has been catching lobster for the past three decades.
U.S. kelp farms are still few and far between. Only a handful of small commercial operations exist in Maine.
But the sector is brimming with interest, as many lobster fishermen look to break into the aquaculture business. Many note that kelp farming, in addition to being a buffer against an unpredictable economic climate, offers fishermen an attractive shot at resilience against the impacts of warmer waters and ocean acidification on traditional lobster territory.
Right now, demand for the seaweed outstrips supply.
"Our great challenge is we can't get enough—today it's blowing 60 knots, so there's no one on the water to get kelp," said Paul Dobbins, who farms kelp off the coast of Maine.
Dobbins runs Ocean Approved, a company that grows and processes its own kelp. He said the company saw explosive growth since it opened its doors in 2009. Every year until 2015, Ocean Approved doubled sales, he said. And in 2015, sales were flat, but orders spiked—the company couldn't produce enough to keep up with demand.
This March, Ocean Approved will be moving its operations to a larger processing facility. That's good business for Dobbins but also a positive indicator for Maine's aquaculture.
Try it, you'll like it
Recent years have brought record catches of lobster for fishermen like Cooper. In 2012, lobstermen caught 127 million pounds of lobster (ClimateWire, July 10, 2014). Warming waters mean northward-bound lobsters inundated Maine's waters in the past decade. But that success was dampened by some of the lowest prices per pound they've seen in years.
And the state's winning lobster streak is unlikely to last forever. Lobster fisheries farther south, like those in the Long Island Sound, saw rises in the number of lobsters before those fisheries collapsed. It may be years before Maine faces a similar fate, but that hasn't stopped Cooper from planning ahead.
Cooper got the idea after a friend on a raw diet persuaded her to try seaweed salad for the first time.
"It didn't look appetizing, but she told me to try it, and I did," Cooper said.
The greens were tastier than she expected, and those first bites also planted a seed in her mind.
That was a few years ago. Now, Cooper is beginning a lease process to start her own kelp farm.
"I love being on the water," said Cooper. "It's just another chance to do that."
Unlike other aquaculture ventures, farming kelp lasts from November to May, making it compatible with lobster fishing, which happens during summer months.
Potential for growth
Cooper isn't the only one interested in kelp. Lease applications for aquaculture permits have soared in recent years, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.
Of 22 aquaculture applications in the system, pending seaweed applications account for 10 acres, according to Belle. That's a smaller chunk of acreage than shellfish at 85 acres or finfish at 50 acres, but still significant, he said. Plus, there are 50 or so pending aquaculture applications that have yet to be officially filed.
In part, that's because it's difficult to get a license for traditional commercial fishery in the region, Belle said. For young people who want to continue the family tradition of working on the water, aquaculture is their way in. When the association started 40 years ago, most members were marine biologists, he says. Now, the sons and daughters of commercial fishermen make up the bulk of membership.
"The people who are interested in it represent a very young, very dynamic entrepreneurial group," said Belle.
That's important because the lease process takes determination—and getting a permit isn't even the hard part.
"Mother Nature is not kind," Belle said. "There are lots of stops and starts along the way."
Currently, Maine uses roughly 1,300 acres for aquaculture, which includes both seaweed and shellfish farming.
The seaweed industry grows roughly $5 billion for human consumption globally, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Commercial harvesting occurs in about 35 countries, spread between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, in waters that range from cold through temperate to tropical, the FAO reports.
The United States now imports the bulk of its seaweed. But that may change.
"For most American consumers, there hasn't been an awareness that their seaweed salad is full of blue dye No. 1 and yellow dye No. 5 and that it may come from waters of questionable pedigree," said Dobbins.
Countries like China corner the market now, but industry experts say Maine growers are well-poised to capture domestic buyers. They say American consumers increasingly prefer to buy local, and, for many, "local" means grown in the United States, said the Island Institute's Nick Battista.
"When you look at the opportunity potential, there's so many things kelp could be an ingredient for, we haven't even scratched the surface in figuring out all those things," he said.
The plant has many applications, and locals are finding innovative uses for it, putting kelp in soap and smoothies, and even using it to flavor beer.
A difficult transition from farming to fishing
Meanwhile, environmentalists point to kelp's ability to offset carbon dioxide and other compounds in East Coast waters.
The seaweed, they say, helps bring nature back into balance, eliminating compounds that are overabundant in Maine's waters. As the kelp grows, it plucks carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorous from the water to photosynthesize.
When farmers harvest their kelp, those compounds are removed along with it, leaving behind more favorable waters.
That process is especially good for hard-shell creatures like lobsters, said lobsterman Richard Nelson, who served as the fisheries representative on Maine's Ocean Acidification Commission. Acidic waters, caused by heightened levels of CO2 in the ocean, make it hard for organisms like shellfish to create calcium carbonate, necessary to form their exoskeletons.
In its findings last year, the commission recommended that Maine "preserve, enhance and manage a sustainable harvest of kelp, rockweed and native algae and preserve and enhance eelgrass beds" for remediation.
Kelp may have its upsides, but the aquaculture industry is not without its challenges. Adapting to farming can be tricky for lobstermen used to the fishing life.
Compared with established giant industries like land agriculture, aquaculture is far more fragmented, Dobbins noted. It's in the process of standardizing products and lacks a streamlined supply chain.
"It's not something that you say, 'OK, tomorrow I'm going to be a kelp farmer,' and away I go," Dobbins said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500