The Art of Fishing: seaweed harvesting

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

Ascophyllum nodosum (knotted wrack) at low tide. Photo by Sarah Paquette.

Nearly every trip to the shore at low tide is marked by that singular, almost-but-not-quite-unpleasant stink of seaweeds exposed to the air. The Gulf of Maine is replete with dozens of species of these marine algae, from the nearly transparent “sea lettuce” to the mighty kelps. For centuries coastal residents have used the seaweeds as food and fertilizer, dragging what they needed from intertidal areas at low tide and drying them along the shore. “There is a long history of seaweed in the state of Maine,” said Robert Morse of North American Kelp, a rockweed harvesting and processing company in Waldoboro. “It would be difficult to recount all of it in a concise manner.”

Today seaweed harvesting in Maine has become more sophisticated Bursting with trace minerals, protein and vitamins, Maine’s multitudes of seaweeds bring in about $90 million dollars a year, according to Morse .

The Gulf of Maine produces a variety of seaweed. Photo by Sarah Paquette.

It all started with Marine Colloids Inc. of Rockland. Now part of FMC Corporation of Philadelphia, Marine Colloids began processing Irish moss, Chondrus crispus, in the mid-1930s. Maine coastal residents hauled Irish moss off the rocks, dried it and brought it by the bale to the small factory in mid-coast Maine to be processed for its carageenan. Carageenan acts as a thickener when heated and was a key ingredient in many early dessert recipes (Blanc mange). It is now used as a thickening agent in products such as ice cream, lunch meats, and even shampoo and toothpaste.

In 1999, the FMC Bioproducts business was taken over by Cambrex, a growing fine chemical manufacturer based in New Jersey. Cambrex continued to acquire seaweed through FMC and began producing agar, a derivative of red seaweeds. Agar agar, as it is often called, is sold as gel slabs and is used by scientists to study a number of viruses and diseases, used in canning foods, and in cosmetics.

But seaweed has many more uses than just stabilizing agents. Seaweed is sold as salads, seasonings, energy bars, animal feed, fertilizer, and supplements. In Maine, anyone who wishes to harvest seaweed must buy a license from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) for around $50 to harvest the seaweed they want from anywhere along the coast. While there is currently no management plan for seaweed, the Maine Seaweed Council has published a booklet filled with recommendations for sustainable harvesting practices. The Council is also working with the DMR to create a management plan before the fishery becomes troubled.

Ascophyllum can be harvested with a hand rake into boats. Photo by Sarah Paquette.

“There is plenty of it out there now,” said Tollef Olson, CEO and founder of Ocean Approved, a seaweed processing business based in Portland and operator of the first open water kelp farm in the U.S. “But if [seaweed harvesting] takes off, and I think it will, we don’t want to end up like so many other fisheries in the state have when they become overfished.” Olson’s product, kelp, has traditionally been sold as a dried vegetable, but he has found a new way to market kelp. “I like to say the difference between dried and fresh kelp is like the difference between dried and fresh peas. Fresh just tastes better,” he said. “I harvest the kelp, stabilize it by cooking it, then immediately freeze it. Even after it’s been frozen it’s still fresh because the nutrients in kelp don’t break down in ice.” Kelp was traditionally dried because people were using it long before refrigeration was an option. Since seaweed is a marine species and likes to be in water, drying it was the best way to keep the kelp from rotting.

“I started thinking about harvesting and processing seaweed 30 years ago. But the market just wasn’t ready then,” Olson said. “Seaweed harvesting is a traditional fishery in the Gulf of Maine and there is some real potential for the state now.” Olson said it has taken a few years to figure out the best way to harvest and process seaweed since there weren’t any big companies to model themselves after when they began. “We’ve worked with Sea Grant and have received some learning grants that have allowed us to work in a lab space at Gulf of Maine Research Institute to learn more about growing seaweed,” Olson explained. He notes though, that working in a lab is much different than working with seaweed in the ocean. “We [the seaweed harvesters of Maine] are one of the first industries to go into aquaculture before there is a problem with the wild harvest. No one thinks we’ll run out of seaweed, but that’s what they thought about the urchin fishery,” he said.

Maine Coast Sea Vegetables founder Shep Erhart also harvests kelp, as well as dulce, lavar, and alaria. He began harvesting seaweed 40 years ago for himself and his wife then began sending packaged seaweed to friends and family. Now he sells his products in natural food stores and through his online store. “People think of seaweed and they think about the smelly, slimy stuff found on the beach. But you never harvest drifting kelp, just like you wouldn’t pick up a fish you find on the beach,” Erhart said. Erhart sells packages of dried kelp, dried and ground seaweed mixes as seasonings, a snack bar called Kelp Krunch, and low sodium Sea Chips, among other dried seaweeds. To keep his harvesters from overharvesting beds of seaweed, Erhart keeps a chart to mark the beds being harvested. “We don’t want any double dipping,” he said. He too, is on the Seaweed Council and is hopeful that a management plan will ensure a lasting seaweed industry.

There are a number of ways to harvest seaweed. If the seaweed is being harvested as a sea vegetable, it is handpicked. Olson says he either snorkels or dives for his kelp, depending on the tide. “You have to leave the holdfast (the anchor) and part of the stem, or stipend, so the plant can grow back. You also have to respect the biomass. You don’t want to take more than 20% of the kelp from one bed,” explained the former urchin diver and mussel grower. He says leaving enough kelp in each bed is a challenge because other harvesters can find the same bed of kelp and take another 20%, or more. “And before you know it, that bed is no good anymore.” However, with no regulations in place, harvesters could take as much kelp as they wanted every time they dive.

Another popular seaweed along the coast of Maine, Ascophylum nodosum, is known by many names including rockweed, Norwegian kelp, knotted kelp, knotted wrack or egg wrack. Rockweed, unlike kelp, is harvested in large quantities with rakes or machines and used for fertilizers, animal feed, or as an additive. “Unfortunately, there has been a lot of negative hype about the rockweed industry,” said Sarah Redmond, marine extension associate at Maine Sea Grant. “It started in 2008 when land owners felt rockweed harvesters were taking seaweed from their private property and wanted to stop them. The media just keeps picking that story up as if it’s a new issue.”

Redmond says it’s easy to avoid conflict if the harvesters and land owners communicate. Rockweed grows on rocks and ledges along the shore and becomes exposed at low tide. Harvesters use rakes with a sharp blade along the tines to rake rockweed into boats or nets. “Maine harvesters have designed machines that harvest rockweed,” said Redmond. “These suction harvesters are on platforms that chug along and suck up seaweed and cut it at the right height.”

“One of our mechanical boats can bring in a minimum of 10 tons a day,” said Morse. “We have a crew of three people. Two operate the mechanical cutters and one tends those boats, floating nets of rockweed to the ‘mother boat’, an old lobster boat.” The lobster boat is able to tow the floating nets of rockweed and the mechanical boats in at the end of the day. The harvest is then sold to companies that dry out the seaweed and turn it into fertilizer or animal feeds.

The Rockweed Coalition, a group of citizens with the goal of putting an end to commercial cutting of rockweed until it is proven to be a sustainable harvest, has begun a registry of properties whose owners want harvesters to keep away. So far, some harvesters have agreed to avoid areas on the registry, but there is no management or regulation saying they must.

Seaweed processing is a rapidly growing business sector in the state as people discover the many ways to prepare seaweed and the health benefits of including it in one’s diet. Maine Sea Grant is working with kelp farmers to offer workshops to Maine lobstermen in hopes they will become interested in growing kelp during the off season. “It’s a win-win for the lobstermen. They already have all the equipment they need and they will be making money through the winter,” Olson said. “We just need to figure out who will buy the seaweed and how much lobstermen can actually make.” Redmond points out that if the local lobstermen don’t take hold of this opportunity, someone else will. “It will be a great way for lobstermen to diversify and keep control over their area,” she said.