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Coastal Entrepreneurs Continue To Ramp Up Maine's Production Of Kelp

Fred Bever
Maine Public
Seth Barker harvests kelp grown in the Damariscotta River estuary by the startup aquaculture company he co-owns, Maine Fresh Sea Farms.

Coastal entrepreneurs continue to ramp up Maine's production of kelp, and a processor that's seeded the young sector's growth is responding by opening a 27,000 square foot plant in Biddeford.

Atlantic Sea Farms CEO Briana Warner says that in the last two seasons, the 24 farmers who supply kelp to the company have increased their landings by 12,000%, to roughly 700,000 pounds of seaweed this year. Most of them are lobstermen who own their own boats, looking for off-season income.

"So our partner farmers constitute around 95 percent of all the seaweed that's grown in the state of Maine, and over 80 percent of what's grown in the entire United States. So what that means is that fishermen are the ones who are singlehandedly growing the kelp industry in the United States, and they're fishermen from Maine," Warner says.

Before the pandemic, Atlantic Sea Farms was focused mostly on institutional buyers such as food-service companies and restaurant chains. But as those markets slowed or shut down in 2020, Atlantic pivoted to retail buyers for value-added products such as seaweed salad and kelp cubes (for smoothies).

The new facility will quadruple the company's processing space, helping to build a critical mass of supply that markets can depend on, Warner says. And that should keep inventory moving from the ocean to institutional buyers and what's now a list of 1,400 retail outlets, and counting, including Whole Foods and Sprouts.

Warner adds that balancing supply, demand and processing capacity in a new and fast-growing industry has its challenges but, she says, "We're selling everything we can grow. We're looking to add more farmers this year, we're working with people that can work off their lobster boats, that can harvest efficiently and effectively and grow high-value seaweed."

In the kelp-harvesting season that wound up last month, Atlantic Sea Farms paid growers 55 cents a pound at the dock, Warner says, noting that the company supplies them seed for free. That's earning them a gross of anywhere from $20,000 to $90,000, and even more, for around 30 days work on the water. Warner says the company is working to pay a price that makes the endeavor worthwhile for fishermen, even while competing with cheaper seaweed grown in Asia.

Warner says the company's mission is to diversify income streams for Maine's fleet of owner-operator seafood businesses up and down the coast.

"Kelp is a totally new industry both in the United States and especially on the coast of Maine, and I feel like us moving into a new facility and moving to a bigger place and adding more staff and more marketing and sales and more research and development, and a nursery... it just shows that this is viable and it shows that fishermen can lead a sustainable aquaculture industry," Warner says.

And, as she notes, because the seaweed-growing season is mostly in the colder months when much of Maine's inshore lobster fleet is dormant, the kelp industry is not beset by the same kind of conflicts that are emerging around expansion, in some places, of the state's shellfish-growing industry.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.