Maine's Seaweed Farmers Are Already Having a Record-Setting Year

Lobster fishers have been steadily increasing hauls of this kelp crops in their off-season.

We're already a month-plus into spring and in Maine, spring isn't just about April showers (rain or snow) or May flowers: it also marks the start of the state's seaweed harvest. According to the Associated Press, Maine is the spot for the United State's seaweed farming industry, and this year already looks like one for the record books.

Atlantic Sea Farms, which works with more than two dozen seaweed farmers, told the outlet that it expects this year's briny crop to tip the scales at more than 800,000 pounds, which almost doubles last year's harvest of 450,000 pounds—a state record at the time.

Harvesting seaweed from a seaweed farm
Liz Johndrow cuts kelp from a rope aboard a boat in Saco Bay on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. The kelp is part of a seaweed farm created by the University of New England, which received a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy to assess the ability to grow seaweed in the open ocean. Portland Press Herald / Contributor/Getty Images

Over the past several years, Maine has moved from collecting wild seaweed to farmed varieties, and the annual harvests keep getting bigger. In 2018, the total haul of farmed seaweed was around 54,000 pounds, then grew to 280,000 pounds in 2019. A projection from the Island Institute suggests that the annual take could top more than 3 million pounds by 2035.

"The uses for seaweed go beyond food products," Afton Hupper, an outreach and development specialist at the Maine Aquaculture Association, told National Fisherman. "Seaweed can play a huge role in self-care, which is becoming a top priority for people as they continue to spend time at home in 2021 and are looking for ways to boost their overall health and wellness."

That's not to say that the seaweed industry hasn't faced pandemic-related challenges: Atlantic Sea Farms previously told the Associated Press that they also had to hurriedly find new sales outlets, following restaurant closures and drastic reductions in wholesale orders. Fortunately, the company was able to get its products into supermarkets and other retailers, which kept it afloat—no pun intended—last year.

"Four ounces of a kelp in smoothie cubes is not the same as kelp on every salad in Sweetgreen that's going out the door," Bri Warner, chief executive officer of Atlantic Sea Farms, said in December. "We're being very creative about how we sell."

The farmers that Atlantic Sea Farms has partnered with are mostly lobstermen-and-women, who grow kelp during their off-seasons from lobster fishing. The heterokonts they harvest are then turned into fermented seaweed salad, kimchi, a beet and kelp kraut, thaw-and-eat kelp for pastas or salad bowls, and frozen pureed kelp cubes that are smoothie-ready.

"[W]e were so glad this year to have seen our partner farmers absorb some of the shock of the volatility of the lobster industry through their kelp farming income," Warner said. "These industries are entirely complimentary—different seasons, same basic equipment—and we are excited to show that kelp farming is a viable supplemental income source [...] I hope that some of the innovation that was found during these incredibly difficult times continues to expand and lift all boats in the long term."

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