Seaweed Inc.: As climate threatens lobster, Maine eyes new cash crop

Original publication by Stephanie Hanes for csmonitor.com on 5 July 2022

A worker on Justin Papkee’s lobster boat pulls in a line of kelp in Casco Bay.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

The landing dock of the Portland Fish Exchange is busy this afternoon, in a way that almost reminds David Townsend of when there were still groundfish to catch in Casco Bay, when this pier was piled with cod and haddock. That was back when he captained his own boat and before he became operational manager at the exchange – back before the fisheries collapsed and people started to learn that the Gulf of Maine was warming faster than almost any other waters on Earth.

Now, Mr. Townsend waves down to Justin Papkee, who has maneuvered his boat up to the dock. Mr. Papkee is a lobsterman. But hours earlier, he and his crew harvested thousands of pounds of sugar kelp, hauling the seaweed onto his boat from the ropes where it had been growing, cutting off the leafy blades and stuffing them into half-ton potato sacks. The back of Mr. Papkee’s boat sags from the weight of it all.

“Let’s bring ’em up,” Mr. Townsend says, as the dock and boat crews start attaching bags to a pulley system, readying the forklift and scale.  

There is another boat behind Mr. Papkee’s, where Stewart Hunt is waiting his turn to offload. Mr. Hunt owns a mooring company here. But he has incorporated kelp farming into his business plan, and now he and his son, who came up from New York to help with the harvest, stand next to their own white sacks full of seaweed, some 9,000 pounds in all.

David Townsend, operations manager at the Portland Fish Exchange in Maine, has seen big changes in the industry as stocks of cod, haddock, and other traditional fish have disappeared.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“We love the new business,” says Mr. Townsend. “This is the thing of the future.”

Briana Warner smiles when she hears this. This is a new tune for the dockworkers, who not long ago grumbled about how their lives had descended to this, landing ocean weeds. But as the boats keep coming in, their enthusiasm for her efforts has grown.  

She ties off the huge white bundles as they come on to the dock, marking some with an organic label, kelp flecks on her arms. She made herself take a shower last night, even though she knew she would be right back here, smelling like fish and seaweed again. It is a short harvest for kelp, and it’s busy. And it is her company, Atlantic Sea Farms, that is buying all of it, part of an ambitious effort to revamp not only Maine’s working waterfront, but also the way the state is fighting, and adjusting to, climate change.

“Kelp is the answer to so many of the questions that we’re facing here in Maine,” Ms. Warner says. “We are presenting a climate change adaptation tactic that also does no harm, and in fact does positive things. … It makes the ocean better. It makes our coastal ecosystems better. It makes our coastal economy better. And it makes the consumer healthier.”

“Kelp is the answer to so many of the questions that we’re facing here in Maine. … It makes the ocean better. It makes our coastal ecosystems better. It makes our coastal economy better.” – Briana Warner, head of Atlantic Sea Farms, which produces the majority of commercially farmed seaweed in the U.S., shown here tagging a bag of harvested kelp in Portland, Maine
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“It’s a hard road. Like, it’s extremely hard. … But if we can prove we’re doing this – building a company that is based entirely on the integrity of the planet and our coastal ecosystem – that’s a proof of concept. The system doesn’t have to be broken.”

The story of seaweed here in Maine, and how it is evolving into what some are calling Maine’s new cash crop, is part of a global story. It is one that weaves together climate change, industrial food systems, nature-based solutions, economic challenges, and cross-sector cooperation. 

But it is also intensely local. And this, climate activists say, makes it even more important for understanding how humans around the world might adjust to a quickly changing planet.

While few researchers would discount the importance of sweeping climate actions by international organizations and countries, there is a growing sense that, at least in the short term, real change will come from variations of what is happening in the waters off the coast of Maine. These will be place-specific initiatives. They will be based on cooperation and unity, not only between humans – the environmentally minded businesswoman and the sometimes conservative fishermen – but also among people and nature: the carbon and the kelp and the restaurateurs.  

Alone, these efforts won’t fix all the ecological and economic problems brought about by climate change. But they will help, especially as they are repeated in different forms and ways.

“There’s no one silver bullet,” says Susie Arnold, a marine scientist at the Island Institute, a Maine nonprofit focused on preserving the state’s working waterfront. “It’s going to take everybody. And at this point, we’ve taken such a toll on the Earth that there are going to have to be trade-offs. It’s going to have to be about the big picture, and how everyone needs to pitch in.”

In Maine, this means developing a new understanding about what is happening – and what can happen – in and around the water.

For generations, life in this sparsely populated, ruggedly proud Northeastern state has focused on the ocean. Although Maine’s coast is only about 228 miles from north to south, when you include the various bays and inlets, the state’s shoreline measures more than California’s, totaling some 3,478 miles. Studies show that more than 80% of the household income in some communities traces back to fisheries.

Workers with Bangs Island Mussels, a Maine-based aquaculture company, harvest multiple lines of kelp in Casco Bay.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

When Mr. Townsend was younger, these fisheries were ecologically complex, with people who worked the sea bringing in a variety of groundfish and shellfish. But for a complex brew of reasons, involving everything from overfishing to ecological changes to new regulations, many species have largely disappeared from Maine’s waterfront. 

Yet there has always been lobster.

For a generation now, lobster has been king of Maine’s seafood industry. It forms the base of a billion-dollar-plus business in the state, which provides the vast majority of domestically caught lobster in the United States. Communities up and down Maine’s coast revolve around the lobster industry, both economically and culturally. And the people who hoist the traps take pride in crafting their own stringent measures to protect the fishery. They have imposed regulations on everything from who gets to catch lobster to what type and size of crustaceans are allowed to be pulled from the water.

“Lobster fishermen are notoriously good stewards of our coastal ecosystems,” says Jesse Baines, the marketing director at Atlantic Sea Farms, who grew up in a Maine lobstering family. “But we all know that the seasons are more variable every year.”

Yet the seasons are not just more variable, starting unpredictably later or earlier. On the water, they are also warmer.   

“The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest bodies of warming water in the world,” says Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “And frankly, it’s incredibly scary how fast it’s happening.”

The reason, scientists say, is climate change. As humans release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the air warms. Much of that heat is absorbed into the oceans. There are also ocean currents that some scientists believe are being disrupted. A shift in one particular circulation pattern has allowed warmer water coming up from the Gulf Stream to push away colder water coming down from Labrador, leaving warmer, saltier currents entering the Gulf of Maine. And that has prompted the lobster population to shift northward.

The floor at the Portland Fish Exchange – once filled with local catches of cod, haddock, and other groundfish – is now largely empty. It’s a symbol of the decline of local fish populations.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Already, researchers say, the lobster population in New Hampshire and Massachusetts has dropped dramatically, while in Maine the best lobster grounds have inched northward and eastward along the coast, or farther offshore. The lobster harvests might still be strong, but many boat crews recognize that the water is changing. 

Meanwhile, the warmer water has caused other species to migrate to the area, including the endangered right whale. Legal battles have erupted among the lobster industry, interest groups, and the federal government over protecting the mammal. Looking at all of this, economic development experts throughout the state are worried about the risk of so much of Maine’s economy being dependent on lobster. 

Those experts include Ms. Warner. “Just a few more degrees in the water, and no matter what they do for conservation, no matter what license procedures we’ve put in there, the lobster larvae aren’t going to survive at the rate they are now,” Ms. Warner says. “We would never say the lobster industry is going to end, because we have no idea what is going to happen. But we do know that it’s super volatile. And it’s really scary to have the entire coastline of Maine completely dependent on one species.”

Before she and her family moved to Maine, her husband’s native state, in 2013, Ms. Warner had spent nearly a decade as a U.S. Foreign Service economic development officer based in multiple African countries. There, she watched the struggles of individuals and communities working against forces far larger than themselves. And so she recognized what she was seeing in Maine.

“It’s just really devastating to see an industry that has taken such a leadership role in conservation and has no ability to stop the volatility because of the greater world’s usage of fossil fuels,” she says. “No matter what the lobster fishery does, they can only control so much because the ocean is just warming.”

The industry needed another way to make money, she realized – one that would be ecologically helpful instead of harmful.

Kelp, which looks like bronze lasagna noodles, is harvested off the coast of Maine.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

And that brought her to kelp.

The seaweed known as Saccharina latissima, or sugar kelp, is a yellowish brown alga that grows along rocky coastlines. It takes the shape of an elongated lasagna noodle, with crinkled edges, and can grow up to 16 feet long.

It is high in a variety of nutrients, and also has a gelling capacity that makes it a useful ingredient for everything from cosmetics to ice cream to toothpaste. And like all plants, kelp absorbs carbon while giving off oxygen.

Researchers are still trying to quantify how much carbon is sequestered through a kelp forest. This concept, though, is tricky, in the same way that the carbon-absorbing nature of cover crops, or tree farms, can be difficult to measure, because once a plant is cut and consumed, that carbon is no longer trapped within its cells. There is some indication that debris from kelp makes its way to the ocean floor and is buried there, which would be true long-term carbon capture. But supporters of the plant’s climate impact say that matters less than the carbon benefit that comes from the sorts of food kelp can replace.

Kelp can be grown without fertilizer or some of the other fossil fuel-heavy elements of industrial agriculture. As a result, kelp-infused foods, such as plant-based burgers, have a lower climate impact than more traditional fare. Increasingly, scientists are looking at ways to use kelp in livestock feed. Other researchers are exploring kelp’s potential as a biofuel.

These uses are at the cutting edge of seaweed research, but the idea of kelp as both a food source and an environmental solution is not new. Indigenous people in the Americas harvested kelp for generations. In Asia, it’s part of a multibillion-dollar seaweed farming industry.  

But in the U.S., where far fewer people eat seaweed, there has been scant commercial interest in kelp farming until recently. Overall, aquaculture, or sea farming, is one of the most rapidly growing food production methods in the country. Although seaweed currently makes up only a small percentage of that industry, it is the fastest-growing subsector, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Buoys designate lines of kelp on a seaweed farm in Casco Bay, an inlet in the Gulf of Maine.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

This is partly the result of efforts by people like Mr. Belle, the Maine aquaculture organization director, and groups like the Island Institute. They have taught farmers about the potential of kelp and also lobbied the state government to implement regulations that allow men and women who fish to test out the farming method without overly burdensome investments.

This work helped convince people like Mr. Hunt, whose boat was lined up at the Portland Fish Exchange, that kelp farming could supply a good chunk of his income.  

The waterman started thinking about seaweed six years ago, after hearing another farmer talk at a conference. He quickly wrote up a business plan, and estimated that kelp could eventually make up a good 50% of his income, which was otherwise focused on servicing moorings.

The plan, he says, “was right on.” Mr. Hunt now farms 20,000 feet of kelp line. He does, however, make sure to keep some for himself. “I like a seaweed salad,” he says. “With sautéed shrimp, carrots, and tamarind sauce.” 

Seaweed farming works well in Maine because it grows in the offseason for the lobster industry. That means people who already have the boats, equipment, and knowledge for working the sea can make an additional profit over the winter.

“It fits well with their traditional fishing,” Mr. Belle says. 

Once pulled in, the kelp is stored in giant bags on the boat.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kelp is unloaded and weighed at the Portland Fish Exchange in Maine. Maine is the country’s top producer of seaweed, harvesting more than 1 million pounds a year.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

For these workers, kelp farming is not overly difficult. In the fall, they run ropes seeded with kelp across leased sections of water. Then they let the plant grow until early spring, when it becomes long enough to harvest. The issue, Mr. Belle says, is what to do then. “We know we can grow a lot of seaweed,” he says. “We can grow hundreds of thousands of pounds of it. The challenge is what to do with that seaweed. For us in the U.S., seaweed isn’t part of our normal diet.”

That’s where Ms. Warner fits in.

In the mid-2010s, she was working with the Island Institute, focused on how to foster economic resilience in the face of warming water. As part of that effort she met the founders of a company called Ocean Approved, who wanted to grow, harvest, and market large volumes of seaweed. In 2018, Ms. Warner took over the company. But she decided to change the business model. Rather than having her own large seaweed farms, she wanted to contract with people who fished up and down the coast and have them do the harvesting. She would supply the kelp seed, technical support, and training, as well as promise to buy all their kelp.

That last element – a guaranteed buyer – was key to many boat captains’ decisions to start growing seaweed. It meant that they could operate the same way that they did with lobsters: They would bring in their catch, have it weighed, and then get paid.  

Ms. Warner renamed the company Atlantic Sea Farms. And she started to travel up and down the coast, working to convince the people who do lobstering to grow underwater forests. 

She didn’t talk about climate change or nutrition or sustainable food systems. She just explained the business model and promised to buy their kelp.

Since then, Atlantic Sea Farms has gone from purchasing 30,000 pounds of seaweed a year to 1 million pounds, and from two small kelp farms to 27 partner farmers, with another dozen waiting for leases from the state. It has helped make Maine, by far, the top domestic producer of seaweed.

Workers at Atlantic Sea Farms, an aquaculture firm, fill jars with seaweed salad in Biddeford, Maine. Seaweed-based foods, not a traditional part of the American diet, are gaining wider acceptance.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

The growth has required a feat of logistics. Ms. Warner has had to invest in cold-storage units and refrigerated trucks, as well as build a market for all the kelp. To help do that, her company has developed a flash-freeze process that allows it to sell fresh kelp to restaurateurs and the food service industry. It also recently opened a new 27,000-square-foot facility in Biddeford, Maine, where there is a kelp nursery and production facilities.

On one recent day, a food production crew worked at stainless steel tables, mixing kelp and filling jars with seaweed salad for retail at grocery stores across the country. 

The company’s next big goal is to expand its reach beyond the “smoothie, seaweed salad, vegetarian” clientele to more mainstream customers. This is possible, Ms. Warner believes.

“Aquaculture right now – especially kelp aquaculture, but also oysters and mussels – allows us the ability to be exactly who we’ve always been,” she says. In other words, people intimately connected to the sea. 

That’s one reason Matthew Moretti farms kelp. He has always loved the ocean.

Growing up near Bangor, he regularly joined his father on a lobster boat and learned the ways that workers here tend to the long-term sustainability of the ocean. He knew, as he studied marine biology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and then went to Northeastern University in Boston for graduate school, that he wanted to keep working the sea, producing food in a way that cooperated with the ecosystem rather than taking from it.

In 2010, his family became the new owner of Bangs Island Mussels, an aquaculture company based in Portland. Mr. Moretti started growing kelp the same year.

Workers with Bangs Island Mussels farm mussels from a raft in Casco Bay. The mussels’ growth is aided by having kelp lines nearby, which make the water less acidic.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“We started farming mussels and then immediately began farming kelp because it was the most sustainable form of protein that we’d ever heard of,” he says.

At first, his company tried to process and sell its own product. But eventually he and his family co-owners collaborated with the company that would become Atlantic Sea Farms. They now sell their kelp to Ms. Warner – some 117,000 pounds last year.

“It’s a really great partnership that’s developed between us,” Mr. Moretti says. “It lets us focus on what we do well, which is growing. And they get to focus on what they do well, product development.”

But that wasn’t the only partnership that blossomed. Like kelp, mussels require no feed, no chemicals, and very little space to produce. But they are sensitive to the pH balance in the water. And the ocean, as it absorbs more carbon molecules, is becoming more acidic – a problem for mussels and many other shell-forming creatures.

Mr. Moretti realized that when he grew kelp near the mussels, his shellfish seemed to grow larger and healthier.

He began working with scientists to study what is now called the kelp “halo effect,” or how, around a seaweed farm, the water has more oxygen and is less acidic.  

“The kelp is sucking carbon dioxide directly out of the water, and actually reducing the acidity of the water in its general vicinity,” he says. “So if you put the kelp close enough to the mussels, we have measurable, significant evidence showing that the kelp halo effect helps the mussels grow bigger and faster. It was just amazing to see that.”

The kelp also benefits, researchers have found. Mussels filter ocean water, removing possible parasites and bacteria that could  damage the kelp.

“It’s not going to solve climate change,” Mr. Moretti says. “It’s not going to solve ocean acidification. But it’s one way we can make a difference that’s measurable and significant in our local ecosystem to help the problem.”

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