From Maine’s warming waters, kelp emerges as a potentially lucrative cash crop

The Boston Globe
Posted 2021-06-26

FALMOUTH, MAINE — One bright, brisk morning last month, Colleen Francke steered her skiff a mile off the coast of Falmouth and cut the gas. A few white buoys bobbed in straight lines on the water. Francke reached down and hoisted a rope.

She has been lobstering for a decade and a half, she says, but as climate change warms local waters and forces lobsters northward, she’s been finding it harder to envision a future in that industry.

So, for the last two years, she’s been developing a new source of income. Heaving the rope aloft, she showed off her bounty: ribbons of brown, curly sugar kelp, raised on her 10-acre undersea farm.

Kelp, a seaweed more often thought of as a nuisance by fishermen, is emerging as a potentially lucrative crop, hailed for its many uses as a miracle food to an ingredient in bioplastics to a revolutionary way to feed beef cattle. And Maine officials, confronting a likely decline of the state’s iconic lobster fishing industry in coming decades, are now looking to kelp farming as a possible economic and environmental savior.

The state is working with local institutions to support training and grants for entrepreneurs such as Francke willing to move into kelp farming or other aquaculture ventures. It also labeled kelp a “natural climate solution” in its recently-released Climate Action plan. The goal, officials say, is to dramatically expand kelp farming as part of a reinvention of Maine’s seafood industry — and imagining a future in which kelp from Maine is held in something akin to the esteem that Maine lobster is now.

Rich in nutrients and vitamins, kelp has long been consumed as a staple in Asian cultures. In the last several years, it’s been increasingly incorporated into health, beauty, and food products in the United States. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations named seaweed farming the fastest growing sector in aquaculture, and the research firm Global Market Insights estimates the worldwide market for seaweed will grow to $85 billion by 2026.

Now 35, Francke helped build the first kelp farm in Maine a decade ago. Today the industry has taken off in the state, with over 100 farming sites now dotting the coast. It’s a relatively simple and remarkably sustainable process: There are no inputs like fresh water, fertilizer, or feed. Fishermen place spore-holding sorus tissue along lengths of rope and submerge them, letting Mother Nature do the rest. Just 4 pounds of sorus can seed 30,000 pounds of kelp for harvest.

Maine kelp farms in 2020 produced 450,000 pounds, nearly double the harvest of just two years before. This year they’re on track to bring in more than 800,000 pounds, and, in so doing, are leading the nation in this nascent industry, which is seeing some farms pop up in Alaska and on the West Coast.

But that’s a fraction of what the Island Institute, a community development corporation in Rockland, Maine, that has funded aquaculture business development programs in the state, estimates is possible. By its calculations, that figure could soar to nearly 6 million pounds by 2035. But even those numbers are dwarfed by China, which, according to the UN, produced more than 14 million tons of farmed seaweed in 2017.

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