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A Trip to a Seaweed Farm

Sugar Kelp Pressing by Marta Bellocq

This farm requires no alteration of the surrounding environment other than the moorings and the ropes and buoys…

Today I wait on the dock for Sarah Redmond (a seaweed farmer) to bring in the flat-bottomed boat. I am standing alongside Dr. Susan Brawley, the internationally known phycologist from the University of Maine, two of her students, and Shep Erhart. The cool air smells of salt and iodine. A strand of wild sugar kelp floats by, its stipe, filled with oxygen, as buoyant as a life preserver. It trails a 12-foot-long blade. I lean over and pull it up onto the dock. Susan Brawley tells me it’s typical of the wild kelps that grow underwater here. Around us, lobster boats rock slowly in the tide, tugging at their moorings. It’s late May, and the sailing crowds have not yet launched their pleasure craft. This is still what we call the working waterfront.

Sarah brings her boat up to the dock, and we climb in. We head out, away from the mainland behind us, the tops of the spruces and pines pointing through the fog. This seaweed farm is an experiment, although the harvests, which are plentiful, are already being sold as food. It is leased by the state to a local fisherman who is working with Sarah and Shep to build seaweed aquaculture into a commercial venture. They are learning how to grow the best native edible seaweeds they can. The farm requires no alteration of the surrounding environment other than the moorings and the ropes and buoys, all of which are removed in the summer.

This farm, along with three others southwest of here, are the first full-time endeavors in the state to grow and sell seaweeds for market from Maine bays. Sarah has also worked with a number of shellfish aquaculturists who want to include seaweeds on their farms as well, a process called integrated aquaculture, which is the way the future will probably go. “We don’t want to be monofarmers. We want to learn from our agricultural predecessors about multicropping,” she had told me back at the trailer. The concept of growing shellfish along with seaweeds, all of them relatively clean ventures without the contaminants caused by the feed, supplements, and fungicides used in most finfish and shrimp operations, has attracted a number of innovators here in this country and overseas.

Borrowing the idea from farming multiple crops on land in a single field, these people are concentrating the natural processes of the ocean, in which mussels, clams, and oysters siphon in suspended particles from the water column and release dissolved nitrogen and phosphorous. Seaweeds then incorporate the nitrogen and phosphorous into their tissues to help them grow, much the same way nutrient cycling works in a kitchen garden, with lettuces thriving on a composted cow manure supplement. This overlapping farming is a clean way to use the oceans for food.

“I’ve been acting like this seed giver,” Sarah told me. “I give people seaweed seed and they put it out on their shellfish farms and they can play around with it. And I’ve been getting a lot of interest in kelp farming from lobstermen because aquaculture kelp is a winter crop. They could have a kelp farm in the fall when they take out their lobster traps. Then they harvest the kelp in the spring before they put their traps back in.” Here, where the water, though warming, is still bone cold during the winter seaweed-growing aquaculture season, most of our bays are essentially pristine. Farming seaweeds—as long as native species are the ones that are grown—should not have a negative impact on the environment in the bays, and sea farms create structures, which quickly become good temporary habitats that attract other marine life.

Sarah draws the boat up to the first seaweed rope, leans over, and hauls a loop of it above the water. It shines with a dense growth of sugar kelp. We all lean over, admiring the lush abundance, wet and sparkling in the morning light. And then we pluck a blade, rip it into shares, and eat it. It tastes sweet and salty, and it’s crisp, easy to chew. We check the lines of Alaria, pull one up, and pluck a few sporophylls, the reproductive wings at the base of the blades, and eat them too. This is turning into a bit of a feeding frenzy as we move on, tasting as we go.

From Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge by Susan Hand Shetterly. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.