For Sarah Redmond, 38, seaweed is a passion. During her childhood in Litchfield, Maine, Redmond grew fond of gardening. Her family spent summers camping on Hermit Island near Bath and at other sites along the coast, and that’s where Redmond first encountered Maine’s diverse species of seaweeds. ”Something really drew me,” she recollected. In high school, it became clear to the enterprising student what she wanted to become. “I wanted to be a seaweed farmer,” Redmond said. And so she did.
The path to that goal took time. Redmond attended Unity College and later the University of Maine to study aquaculture as an undergraduate. But the field of aquaculture at that time focused primarily on the cultivation of shellfish and salmon, two high-value species for which Maine was well known. When Redmond graduated from UMaine, she felt unsure about what to do next. So she went to sea.
“I worked as a NOAA fisheries observer on all sorts of fishing vessels for a time. I worked on a lobster boat for a season. It was work that put me on the water but it was not growing seaweed,” she said. “I wanted to be with the plants near the shore. Fishery observer trips were always way offshore and I didn’t want that.”
Eventually Redmond came to work for a mussel farm company near Portland. The company founders were interested in growing seaweed as another source of revenue. Through their endeavors, Redmond came in contact with seaweed biologist Charlie Yarish at the University of Connecticut, who had long been involved in seaweed aquaculture research. “I up and moved to Connecticut,” Redmond said with a laugh. She became a graduate student of Yarish’s, studying techniques for growing sugar kelp seed.
For those familiar with the Maine coast, it might appear that kelp and other marine algae are pretty easy to grow, given their abundance along the shore. But seaweeds have complicated reproduction patterns, according to Redmond. Getting them started and flourishing in a lab is a complex task.
“Sugar kelp has a two-part life cycle,” she explained. “First is its sexual, microscopic, separate male and female phase, where it must reproduce to develop into the sporophyte stage, which is accomplished on a seed string in the nursery. After that you can put them in the water to grow out. Every seaweed species is different, however.” Keeping tiny sugar kelp seed growing involves constantly checking on the temperature and salinity of the water, protecting the seed from microscopic pests, and other problems. “It is farming,” Redmond said drily. “Something always goes wrong.”
After graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut, Redmond returned to Maine as a University of Maine Sea Grant Marine Extension agent. Based at the University’s aquaculture facility in Franklin, Redmond focused on spreading the word about seaweed farming. “We built a seaweed nursery in Franklin and started new crops and new ways of growing them,” she said. Redmond traveled along the coast, educating fishermen and others about seaweed aquaculture and distributing seed to novice growers. She and fellow Marine Extension agent Dana Morse began a free aquaculture training program, called “Aquaculture in Shared Waters,” to teach new shellfish and seaweed farmers about the business. “We really created a lot of interest and excitement about seaweed aquaculture. Now there are incredible educational programs going on in schools as well [through the 4-H program, Island Institute, and others],” Redmond said.
Two years ago Redmond left her position at Maine Sea Grant to start her own seaweed aquaculture company, Springtide Seaweed, LLC. The company grows sugar kelp, skinny kelp, alaria, and dulse, which are dried and made into other products. Redmond also offers educational programs for those interested in starting a seaweed farm, and nursery kits and supplies.
“Everyone should eat seaweed every day,” Redmond said. “It has nutrients and minerals not found in land- based food. It’s so versatile in its uses. You can feed it to livestock, your pets, the soil. It can be applied to nearly every aspect of our lives.”
She took on a business partner in 2017 and began the Maine Seaweed Exchange. The Exchange is a collaborative organization whose goal is to connect people involved in the industry with each other. “We are really working to professionalize the industry, with standards and trainings and a certificate program. The Exchange also is a way to let growers and buyers connect with each other,” Redmond explained.
In addition to running her company and overseeing the Exchange, Redmond will be partnering with the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor this winter to set up a seaweed nursery on the college campus. The idea is to make the seaweed nursery part of a student’s studies in whatever form the student envisions. “Several professors have contacted us already about their ideas,” Redmond said. “I’m very excited.”
But what Redmond is most excited about is having a home base for her many endeavors. In July she and partner Andrea “Trey” Angera moved into an old cannery in Gouldsboro which they purchased from local lobsterman and seafood dealer Leonard Bishko, previous owner of Gouldsboro Enterprises Inc. Redmond plans to turn the building into a seaweed aquaculture center, complete with a nursery, warehouse for storing product, and educational spaces for teaching.
“I happened to be handed a letter from Bishko which he sent to marine businesses. He wanted to sell the building to a working waterfront business,” she said. Bishko was so determined to have his property continue to be used for a marine enterprise that he refused to post a “For Sale” sign because he did not want to be besieged by real estate developers keen to snap up waterfront land. After numerous meetings and negotiations, Redmond was able to close on the property. “I am so blessed to be able to move in here and to keep it as working waterfront. It’s not just real estate,” she said.
Redmond sees a promising future for those interested in cultivating seaweed in Maine. The cold, clean waters of the Gulf of Maine and the state’s long tradition of making a living from the sea offer great potential for seaweed entrepreneurs. “This ocean has the capacity to produce huge amounts of food, not just for us but for the world. There are different ways of fishing and farming. It’s up to us to figure out how to make it work for us, and not let others decide that future for us.”