ELLSWORTH — The annual Maine harvest of seaweed pales in comparison to lobster landings in pounds and value. Yet increasingly, lobstermen have joined other entrepreneurs in growing, harvesting and marketing Maine seaweed. Seen as another means of diversifying the state’s commercial fishing industry, it is turning into a multimillion-dollar industry and keeping in-shore fishermen busy during lobster’s off season.
Rockweed, common along the Maine coast, accounts for about 95 percent of commercially harvested seaweed. It’s used for packing lobsters, as fertilizer and a nutritional additive for pet and livestock feed, and to extract alginate, used to thicken foods, cosmetics and even paint.
But a smaller but growing market is for kelp, sugar kelp, dulse and Alaria, edible sea vegetables grown and harvested for nutritional and flavor supplements in a variety of foods.
“People are recognizing its health benefits, its environmental benefits, and it tastes great,” Island Institute’s Sam Belknap said. The institute recently supported new aquaculturists, including seaweed growers, in a program for fishermen.
“You plant it in the fall and harvest it in the spring,” Belknap said. “It really captures that down time the fishermen who aren’t fishing offshore have. And it leverages the gear they already use.”
Sea vegetables are finding their way into an increasingly wide range of products. They are key ingredients in Gott’s Island-based Dulse & Rugosa skincare products. Fogtown Brewing Co. in Ellsworth adds it to special beers. Springtide Seaweed in Gouldsboro sells sea vegetable-based products, along with supplies, seeds and consulting services.
In Hancock, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables offers kelp crunch bars, along with sugar kelp, Alaria (similar to Japanese wakame) and dulse along with other seaweed products. Founder Shep Erhart and General Manager Seraphina Erhart noted that before starting the business and as followers of a macrobiotic diet, “our purchase of imported seaweeds were a large part of our budget, but we quickly realized they didn’t need to be.”
The company started long before the nation’s current level of interest in sea vegetables, and now works with independent suppliers, “many of whom we’ve worked with for decades,” the Erharts said.
And because the company began decades ago, it used “a little bit of family seed money and a whole lot of Downeast Maine bootstrapping,” they noted, although its new facility received some assistance from Maine Manufacturing Partnership and the Small Business Administration.
About 30 seaweed farmers dot the coastline from Biddeford and eastward up the coast. One of the fastest-growing companies is Atlantic Sea Farms in Saco, started in 2009 and the U.S.’s first commercial seaweed farm. In October, it announced $3.1 million in new investment funding and plans a new processing facility in Biddeford. Like Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, CEO Briana Warner also uses a string of independent harvesters.
The Erharts sees these “small, sustainable farms run by existing fishermen,” along with wild seaweed harvesting, as the future of the local seaweed industry, at least in the short term. “Big farms, like is the norm in Asia, is not the answer here,” she said. “We need to continue to be a responsible fishery, good neighbors with our farm locations and diversify what is being grown amongst the native species.”
With 95 percent of edible seaweed products imported to the U.S., and the edible seaweed market on the rise, Maine harvesters are poised to take advantage. And while lobster prices are at their highest in 2021, future-looking fishermen and the organizations that support a healthy Maine working waterfront are investing time, research and money into seaweed.
Aquaculture, in general, has broad government support in Maine, as seen in a federal and state-funded 1990 report, “An Aquaculture Development Strategy for the State of Maine.” The reasons behind the push echo the situation today: demand for seafood is high and getting higher while supplies in some fisheries are declining; there are new technologies in aquaculture, and Canada, the largest exporter of seafood, especially to the U.S., is heavily investing in aquaculture.
Thirty years after that 1990 report, a large-scale salmon aquaculture operation is proposed — with strong community pushback — in the waters off Mount Desert Island. A land-based salmon farm has already been approved but not yet started at the former site of the Bucksport paper mill on the Penobscot River.
But unlike farmed finfish, seaweed aquaculture is regenerative, meaning it does not require fresh water, pesticides or antibiotics, and actually improves ocean conditions by removing carbon and nitrogen from the water column.
The economic rise of seaweed is mirrored in the amount harvested statewide and the money it brings in. In 2016, just under 17.5 million pounds of seaweed “landed” brought in $616,578 of value, according to data provided by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. But in 2020, while landings dropped to 16.2 million pounds, its value was just under $1.1 million, roughly 40 percent higher than in 2016.
“What we have seen happening around the globe was a growing interest in seaweed aquaculture. And Maine has already had aquaculture for 40 or 50 years,” said Paul Anderson, executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington and a former director of the University of Maine at Orono’s Sea Grant program.
How and if seaweed will fit in and complement the lobster fishing industry remains to be seen, Anderson noted.
“Lobstermen have a pile of concerns going on right now. In all reality, lobsters are going to continue to move northward,” he said. “Will lobstermen adopt this practice? Are any of them early adapters? Not in Stonington, they’re not.”