For decades, Maine fisherman Steve Train has made a living catching lobsters and other seafood. But as warming water off the Maine coast makes the future of the fishery more uncertain, he’s also now started farming kelp as part of a growing network of fishermen and women now working with a company called Atlantic Sea Farms. “It’s an opportunity for people to have another option to make an income,” he says.
Kelp has other advantages: As it grows, sucking up carbon dioxide, it helps fight ocean acidification in local water, helping local marine life like mussels grow stronger. And it doesn’t require any of the resources, from fertilizer to irrigation, of growing food on land. “When you’re putting it on your plate and replacing broccoli, you’re actually adding something that is net positive,” says Briana Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms.
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the ocean. Initially, that has helped lobster populations grow in parts of Maine. But as it keeps getting hotter, “at some point in the future, lobster larvae are not going to survive at the same rate that they currently are,” Warner says. Already, the numbers are volatile, with results hard to predict from one year to the next. By 2050, one study from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute suggests, warming waters could make lobster populations drop by as much as 62%.
“We are not a rich state,” she says. “And our coastal economy north of Portland depends almost entirely on this wild fishery.” Unlike other states, she says, where larger fishing companies dominated in the past—leading to over-fishing and the eventual collapse of fisheries—Maine has thousands of independent fishing companies with single boats. “They’re looking at the future of the industry in a very different way than most fishing industries ever had, because they’re looking at it for their kids and their kids’ kids.”
Atlantic Sea Farms first started as a single kelp farm in 2009—the first to become commercially viable in the U.S. —and Warner later started working with them as she was looking for ways to help fishermen diversify their incomes in the face of climate change. “We know that this can be done very, very well by fishermen who are using the same equipment that they use for lobster,” she says. “It’s done in the lobster off-season, and it uses much of the same skill set and the same equipment as as lobster fishing.” In 2018, she took over as CEO, and helped the network of new kelp farmers grow; 27 now work with the company, and the annual harvest has grown from 30,000 pounds in 2018 to an expected 1.2 million pounds this spring.
The company helps new farmers get leases from the state to work in a particular area, a process that can take as long as a year to get approved. Then it helps them design and set up their new farm. It also provides free seeds to start the farm, after they’ve been incubated in saltwater tanks on land; seed-covered twine is wrapped around long horizontal lines in the water, and then the seaweed begins to grow. After planting around November or December, the kelp can be harvested the following spring. The process isn’t easy. Train says that his first year, his moorings weren’t heavy enough, and he couldn’t harvest. But the company helps farmers troubleshoot, and also guarantees that it will buy whatever a farm produces. A farm can become profitable fairly quickly. “Once all your capital is taken care of, a few weeks of harvest time has a pretty good chance of being a couple of months’ pay,” he says.
The company is also helping grow the market for kelp. “When you walk into the grocery store right now, let’s say there’s 16 aisles in the grocery store, you can only find seaweed in one aisle,” says Warner. “And it’s all imported, and it’s all dried. So that means we have 15 and a half aisles to put kelp, and we’re on a mission to do that.” They now make products like “sea-chi,” a version of kimchi, kelp cubes that can be added to smoothies, and shredded kelp that they say can be added to salads or used as toppings on pizza or tacos. In the past, they worked with chef David Chang to add kelp to a salad at the fast casual chain Sweetgreen, and plan to work with more restaurants. The product is also used in supplements and cosmetics.
If the market for kelp can grow, the network of farmers can grow faster. “The more people we get in the water to farm kelp, the more resilient the coast is,” Warner says says.