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Maine Seaweed: The Next Super-Food?

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

A growing cadre of entrepreneurs think seaweed could help Maine lead a new revolution in American farming. Move over kale – there’s a new super-food on the scene.

This story was originally published 5:28 p.m. April 22, 2016.

It requires no fresh water or soil. It’s packed with fiber and micro-nutrients, and cleans the environment as it grows. 

On a recent and chilly spring day, Peter Fischer is hauling macro-algae from the floating farm he’s helped to establish just off the coast.

Fischer and Peter Arnold, one of his partners in a new startup called Maine Fresh Sea Farms, run a skiff around the Damariscotta River, making their weekly harvest of three different types of seaweed - kelp, alaria, and dulse.

They winch up a rope that’s heavy with waving fronds of filmy, glistening kelp. They first set tiny starter plants near the surface of their two-acre lease here back in September. they marvel at the the plants’ speedy growth – including their stalks, or stipes.

Fisher, Arnold and partner Seth Barker are just getting their first full season into gear. This is a second or even third career for each of the trio, all of them older than 65 and experienced one way or another with marine endeavor. They’ve watched the decline of traditional fisheries: sardines, cod, shrimp, and they see potential for a new coastal enterprise that will harness the ready-made infrastructure and skills of the state’s sea-faring communities.

Arnold says the plan is to exploit a specific niche in the fledgling market for U.S. seaweed - fresh “sea greens” as they are calling them, delivered direct to restaurants and retail sellers. For retail consumers in Maine, it’s selling for up to $15 a pound.

“Dried is traditional. Frozen is being explored,” says Arnold. “But no one was really doing fresh, at least here in this market. So we thought ‘that’s an opening. Let’s see if we can get a foothold that way.’ And here we are. Here we are.”

Americans are already familiar with dried seaweed imported from Asia, and foraging for edible seaweeds along the coasts is a tradition that dates back centuries. However – it’s only in the past several years that an active seaweed farming industry has started to emerge here in Maine. Some believe it’s the forefront of a food revolution.

For example: Barton Seaver, director of Harvard’s Healthy and Sustainable Food Program and a chef who’s just published a cookbook dedicated solely to seaweeds.

“You know what? Kelp is the new kale, and watch out, ‘cause it’s coming,” says Seaver. “And it’ll be everywhere in the next decade.”

Seaweed’s virtues are so many, in Seaver’s eyes: to grow, they require no fertilizer, no pesticides, no fresh water, no arable land. Their nutritional profile is admirable, providing healthy doses of iodine as well as calcium and other micro-nutrients, complex proteins, soluble fiber, and those beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids.

Seaweed’s benefits aren’t just for humans. They clean excess nitrogen and phosphorous from the water. Their fast-paced growth means they can quickly sequester carbon dioxide, making them a potential buffer against ocean acidification.

Describing a new project in Washington State’s Puget Sound, NOAA scientists imagine seaweed farms forming a “protective halo” around compromised areas, filtering pollution, reducing acidification and providing marine habitat.

Seaver says it’s not just a sustainable crop, it’s actually restorative.

“And that’s a very real difference and a major evolutionary point in the sustainability dialog. We’re not at a point where we’re just focused on doing no harm,” says Seaver. “But we’re really beginning to investigate and discover food production methods that allow us to restore and heal environments. And that’s exciting. And it’s delicious.”

Mike Wiley, chef and co-owner at Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Company in Portland is one of around 20 area restaurateurs who are now buying fresh macro-algae from the Damariscotta river harvest. He says the product is “umami,” which has a savory, glutamate flavor that’s increasingly popular in American cuisine and is a great match for fish and shellfish dishes.

“I think it’s vegetal, certainly, but I would say it’s briny and oceanic,” says Wiley. “I would definitely use the word ‘umami’.”

The leafier parts, Wiley says, are fairly easy to accept as just another green. But the stipes, which are like long, slightly rubbery tubes, require more preparation.

Says Wiley: “You break it up, slice it really thin, it can provide just the kind of springy texture that you look for in a relish. Something that’s got a little bit of crunch, a little bit of snap.”

The collective American palate may still take some time to fully embrace Maine seaweed, but the industry is expanding. One company, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, has been selling dried product for 40 years. Last year they added capacity with a new processing plant in Hancock.

Ocean Approved, a more recent entry that harvests and freezes kelp largely for sale to institutions like hospitals and universities, has doubled it’s business almost every year since 2009.

Even if the “seaweed revolution” hasn’t quite arrived yet, like the kelp in the Danmariscotta river it’s starting to show some pretty rapid growth.