September 11, 2014
The names “alaria,” “dulse,” “kelp,” and “laver” may not mean much now, but a growing cadre of aquatic farmers and chefs in New England are trying to change that. These types of edible seaweed (or sea vegetables) are revered by cooks for the jolt of salty goodness they bring to soups and salads, and by health food advocates who dig the high levels of minerals in seaweed.
These ocean-derived foods were on display last week at the Maine Seaweed Festival and conference, held on the breezy, maritime Southern Maine Community College campus in Portland, Maine. Farmers, watermen, and the public flocked to the festival to nibble on seaweed-filled bagels, ice cream, and chips, and hear the latest news about seaweed farming.
Admittedly, I was unsure what the benefits of seaweed farming are, because traditionally seaweed has been harvested from the wild either by collecting what washes ashore or by cutting fronds from under the sea. The trend toward farming seaweed is new, as Sarah Redmond, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate and the conference organizer, explained to the crowd of 50 or more. Working waterfronts often go dormant in the winter, as lobstermen who harvest during warm months move inland for part-time jobs. Seaweed, it turns out, is a winter crop that can keep boats out on the water and provide year-round employment.
Many farmers are new to seaweed, such as Matthew Moretti, a young entrepreneur who operates Bangs Island Mussels, a shellfish and kelp farm in Casco Bay near Portland, Maine, who spoke at the conference. “Mussels are monoculture,” admits Mr. Moretti. For the past three years he has grown sugar kelp between mussel rafts as a way to “farm with more of an ecosystem model,” where seaweed adds another dimension to the sea life he can harvest. He sells his sun-dried seaweed fronds to restaurants in the Portland area but sees that more education among end-users is needed to expand his market base.
Others at the conference have years of experience working on the water, and are looking to diversify the crops they sell. Shep Earhart, the owner of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, one of the largest wild edible seaweed harvesters in the United States (he sells 100,000 pounds of dried kelp each year to Whole Foods and other outlets) says, “I could not grow anymore with local wild seaweed and need to supplement with aquaculture.” At his experimental plot in a choppy and exposed bay just northeast of Acadia National Park, he’s growing kelp and alaria. Earhart had several challenges his first year with broken gear and fouling with other sea life such as barnacles and sea squirts, which he chalks up to “all part of learning to grow something we have never done before.” He doesn’t expect to sell his farmed seaweed for the next year or two and is still tinkering and perfecting the methods, although I expect he will succeed because he surrounds himself with smart people like researcher Susan Brawley at the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research and Tolf Olsen, a generous and energetic owner of Ocean Approved and early adopter of seaweed aquaculture.
A theme running through the conference was the idea of marrying the science of seaweed with the practice of farming. Charlie Yarish, a professor at the at the University of Connecticut, epitomized that relationship in his partners with Brendan Smith of Thimble Island Oyster Company on the Long Island Sound to raise an experimental crop of commercial seaweed at an oyster aquaculture site. Yarish also has grow-out sites in the Bronx, New York, and Fairfield, Connecticut. Beyond the culinary appeal, Yarish sees seaweed as a way to remove excess nutrient (upwards of 200 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year) from Long Island Sound. (Excess nutrients lead to algal blooms, dead zones and fish kills, most famously at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico.) He is advocating for Connecticut to allow seaweed farming as a part of nutrient trading programs, traditionally limited to wastewater treatment programs. In this way, seaweed farmers could gain from the ecological benefits their farms provide as well as from commercial sales of food. I can’t think of another type of farming operation where ecological services are so exactingly quantified and remunerated.
For now, if you want a taste of seaweed’s potential, look for select farm-to-table restaurants in seaweed-producing states or buy direct from producers (folks like Micah Woodcock at Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company sell online) and shipping is easy, as seaweed is relatively light and non-perishable when dried.
Photos by David Love, 2014.