FALMOUTH, Maine – It’s harvest time on Casco Bay.
Briana Warner is dressed for this late spring morning with padded rubber overalls, a raincoat, rubber boots and neon yellow gloves that reach above her elbows. Just off Falmouth, she clings to the edge of a Zodiac boat and uses a gaff (fish hook) to hoist a neon green buoy attached to a thick white rope out of the water. Warner struggles and eventually gets his hands on the rope. The line drips with long, shimmering, translucent ribbons of green kelp.
Warner’s face lights up as she inspects the seaweed. “They are ready for harvest,” she says.
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As CEO and president of Atlantic Sea Farms, Warner, 38, is using seaweed to quietly revolutionize Maine’s struggling fishing industry.
Along the coast of Maine, thousands of lines like this have been planted by fishermen growing seaweed in partnership with his company. In the fall, fishermen plant tiny kelp seeds on the 1,000-foot-long ropes, and by late spring nearly 6,000 pounds of fresh sweet kelp are tied to each. Seaweed is harvested, frozen, and used to make kelp cubes for smoothies, as well as seaweed salad, seaweed kraut, and more.
Seaweed is Maine’s new cash crop.
For generations, the coast of Maine has been supported by a different underwater resource: the lobster. Lobster is integrated into virtually every aspect of life in coastal communities; tax revenues, jobs and the identity of the state depend on it. But as climate change causes Maine’s coastal waters to warm, underwater life and the economy built around it have changed dramatically.
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 96% of the world’s oceans, increasing at a rate of 0.09 degrees per year. These warming temperatures forced the lobster population to migrate north in search of cooler waters, and the impact on Maine fishermen was profound.
Keith Miller, 67, a second-generation fisherman, has been a lobster fisherman for over 50 years, fishing Wheeler Bay between Spruce Head and Tenants Harbour. When he saw the dramatic impact of climate change on his industry, he knew he had to plan for the six months of the year – between fall and spring – when he couldn’t fish for lobster. He heard about a program in Rockland, Maine at the Island Institute (which helps coastal communities thrive) educating lobsters about aquaculture.
“I could choose between oyster farming, mussel farming, or kelp,” says Miller in his thick Maine accent. “The water here is too shallow for mussels, and oysters are a year-round job. I wanted to keep lobstering half the year, so I chose seaweed.
At the time, Warner was the Island Institute’s first economic development officer. A former Foreign Service diplomat, she says she has always been interested in “finding solutions rather than being part of the problem.” After serving in Libya, Guinea, and several other countries, she moved to Maine with her husband (who grew up in the state) and started a family. His goal was to apply his diplomatic skills to make a difference in the coastal and food communities of the state.
“The question we asked was, in communities where lobster is paramount, how do we prepare for the future along the coast of Maine and diversify to deal with climate change?” Warner said. “When you’re self-employed and your whole community depends on one industry, and you’re completely at the mercy of Mother Nature, the overreliance on a monoculture is very scary.”
Miller is one of several dozen lobster fishers accepted into the aquaculture program. He describes the last five years he has spent growing algae during the “shoulder season” as “life changing”.
“My first year of kelp, I brought in 2,200 pounds,” he says. “But this year my harvest was 170,000 pounds. I keep telling people, ‘My ship is coming!’ »
In the summer of 2018, Warner was offered the position of CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms. When she started, two kelp farms produced about 30,000 pounds in total. The company now works with 27 “farmer” partners, and the 2022 harvest yielded just under 1 million pounds of seaweed. The company’s products are now sold in more than 2,000 stores nationwide, as well as college restaurants and cafeterias. In 2021, the company was responsible for 85% of the seaweed produced on the assembly line in the country.
Another farmer the company works with is Justin Papkee, 31, who fishes near Long Island in Casco Bay. “This country is far behind others in understanding how good kelp is for you and for the environment,” Papkee says. “Briana is doing a great job of finding ways to market it.”
Papkee, who still fishes lobster year-round and farms kelp a few days a week during harvest season, says he’s able to sustain his crew of three year-round and generate additional income. Although he’s reluctant to talk about money, he says this year, after four seasons of kelp farming, he’s “in the dark.”
Warner calls seaweed “a shock absorber against the volatility of the lobster industry.” When she talks about algae and the industry, her speech grows and her passion is displayed. “The best thing about kelp is that it’s the most climate-friendly food you can eat!” Seaweed, she explains, is grown without soil, pesticides or fresh water.
The environmental benefits of growing algae go even further. “There’s so much carbon in the air, and when the carbon hits the surface of the ocean, the ocean absorbs it and changes the pH and degrades the shellfish,” Warner explains. “Algae absorb carbon and nitrogen from the water. When you harvest algae, you remove carbon and leave behind a healthier body of water.
Warner is quick to point out that growing algae is not a solution to climate change. “It is, she explains, a strategy for adapting to climate change. It’s better than anything we can eat. But algae, Warner says, can have a massive effect on local climate change. To illustrate her point, she says that when mussels are planted on ropes underwater after a kelp harvest, shell strength is almost twice as strong in those areas, thanks to the removal of excess of carbon.
Until recently, seaweed was always sold dried and most often came from Asia or was wild-harvested in US waters. Atlantic Sea Farms is one of many American companies that sell seaweed that is never dyed or dried. When frozen, it is used to make kelp cubes, a nutritious boost for smoothies, salad dressings and sauces. In raw form, the seaweed adds crunch and an umami-rich briny flavor to seaweed salad, Sea-Beet Kraut, and a version of kimchi called Sea-Chi.
According to Lia Heifetz, 31, of Barnacle Foods in Juneau, Alaska, “seaweed is an ocean multivitamin.” It is rich in potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium and antioxidants. Heifetz and his two partners harvest wild seaweed (which is prolific around the shores of Juneau) as well as farmed kelp. Bull kelp is unique because it can grow a stipe (or stalk) up to 30 feet long and, according to Heifetz, offers a unique texture and flavor similar to fresh apples and bell peppers. Barnacle Foods freezes kelp and uses it to make hot sauce, salsa, pickles, Bloody Mary mixes and more. Heifetz hopes to increase the amount of kelp farming they do in the coming years, but says that in Alaska and many other parts of the country, obtaining permits and licenses involves long hurdles.
“We have a unique opportunity here in Alaska,” she says. “We have 30,000 miles of coastline in the state, mostly undeveloped. Consumers are looking for a way to use their food budget to support causes they care about. And seaweed ticks all the boxes.
Warner also spread the word about the power of algae. She was recently invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos 2022 to speak as part of a program for 20 “ecopreneurs”. She focused her speech on America’s “broken food system” and the potential of Maine’s seaweed aquaculture industry as a “model where people and the planet come first.” But above all, she says, she tried to leave the top leaders who attended the annual summit with something positive.
“What we’re doing with seaweed in Maine,” she told them, “is giving people hope and empowering people to take charge of their own future in the face of a very uncertain climate.”