Maine’s Fastest Growing Crop is Underwater
An aquaculture expert on what’s needed to continue the kelp industry’s trajectory.
Seaweed has been grown by aquaculture operators in Maine since the 1990s, but in recent years the farmed crop has become a full-fledged industry. “Ten years ago if you asked me how many seaweed farms were in the state, I would have said one. Now we have over 33 at last count,” says Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. Kelp makes up the majority of Maine’s seaweed aquaculture and is grown on submerged lines off the coast. For the latest episode of WeGo, Maine magazine’s online video series, we will be seeing how kelp farmers harvest their crop. But before we go sea farming, we spoke with Belle, who leads the nonprofit trade association representing Maine’s aquaculture industry, about what people should know about this fast-growing Maine specialty.
Maine’s coast is ideal for farming seaweed. Kelp grows well in clean water, and Maine’s water quality has allowed the industry to thrive. “It’s a sector that has enormous potential in Maine because of our growing conditions,” says Belle. “People in the marketplace realize that the water quality and environment are so clean, so pristine that they actually pay more for products from Maine than other parts of the world.” Kelp also helps the environment by removing carbon dioxide from the ocean.
It supports fishermen by providing another revenue source during their off season or by helping them hedge against future environmental changes through more diverse income streams. Belle says that along with companies devoted to just growing kelp, seaweed farmers include aquaculture companies like clam and mussel farms and fishermen and lobstermen who want to diversify their economic base. Historically, Maine’s fishermen would fish for different species throughout the year, but the modernization of the industry has made each fishery more specialized, Belle says. “Aquaculture has filled that void to allow them to do exactly what their families have been doing for 100 years, to fish from one season to the next,” he says.
More innovation is needed to further grow the industry. Atlantic Sea Farms is Maine’s largest kelp company and has created several different consumer products, such as frozen kelp cubes and jarred kelp kimchi, but Belle says the creation of new ways to use Maine’s seaweed is necessary. “We need more innovative food entrepreneurs to come in and realize what an amazing ingredient kelp is and how it can be developed in all sorts of products,” he says. “If you go to Asia for instance, there are literally thousands of products that have been developed, and we need to do that same kind of innovate work here in Maine.”