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Seaweed helps Maine lobstermen ride the storm of climate change

Justin Papkee, a partner farmer with Atlantic Sea Farms, hauls up kelp lines with the help of his crew, Jim Ranaghan and Chris Papkee, off Long Island, Maine, in 2021.
Justin Papkee, a partner farmer with Atlantic Sea Farms, hauls up kelp lines with the help of his crew, Jim Ranaghan and Chris Papkee, off Long Island, Maine, in 2021. (Nicole Wolf)
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FALMOUTH, Maine — It’s harvest time on Casco Bay.

Briana Warner is dressed for this late spring morning in padded rubber overalls, raincoat, rubber boots and neon yellow gloves that come up above her elbows. Just off the coast of Falmouth, she hangs off the side of a Zodiac boat and uses a gaff (hook) to hoist from the water a neon green buoy attached to a thick white rope. Warner struggles and finally gets her hands around the rope. The line drips with long, shimmering, translucent ribbons of green sugar kelp.

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Warner’s face lights up as she inspects the seaweed. “They’re ready for harvest,” she declares.

As the CEO and president of Atlantic Sea Farms, the 38-year-old Warner is using seaweed to quietly revolutionize Maine’s struggling fishing industry.

Up and down the Maine coast, thousands of lines like this have been planted by fishermen growing seaweed in partnership with her company. In the fall, the fishermen plant tiny kelp seeds on the 1,000-foot-long ropes, and by late spring, attached to each one is close to 6,000 pounds of fresh sugar kelp. The seaweed is harvested, flash 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, coastal Maine has been supported by a different underwater resource: the lobster. Lobstering is woven into virtually every aspect of life in coastal communities; tax revenue, jobs and the state’s identity depend on it. But as climate change causes Maine’s coastal waters to warm, underwater life, and the economy built around it, has shifted dramatically.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 96 percent of the world’s oceans — increasing at a rate of 0.09 degrees Fahrenheit per year. These warming temperatures have forced the lobster population to migrate north, seeking colder waters, and the impact on Maine fishermen has been profound.

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Keith Miller, 67, a second-generation lobsterman, has been lobstering for more than 50 years, fishing in Wheeler’s Bay between Spruce Head and Tenants Harbor. 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 lobstermen about aquaculture.

“I could choose between oyster farming, mussel farming or kelp,” Miller says in his thick Maine accent. “Water ’round 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’s 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. Her goal was to apply her diplomatic skills to making a difference in the state’s coastal and food communities.

“The question we asked was this: In communities where lobster is everything, how do we prepare for the future along the Maine coast and diversify to face climate change?” Warner says. “When you’re self-employed and your entire community is dependent on one industry, and you’re totally at the whim of Mother Nature, overdependence on one monoculture is very scary.”

Miller is one of several dozen lobstermen accepted into the aquaculture program. He describes the past five years he’s spent farming seaweed in the “offseason” as “life changing.”

“My first year kelping, I brought in 2,200 pounds,” he says. “But this year, my harvest was 170,000 pounds. I keep telling folks, ‘My ship is coming in!’”

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In summer 2018, Warner was offered the position of CEO at Atlantic Sea Farms. When she started, two kelp farms were yielding around 30,000 pounds total. The company now works with 27 partner farmers, and the 2022 harvest brought in just under 1 million pounds of seaweed. The company’s products are now sold in more than 2,000 stores across the country, as well as in restaurants and college cafeterias. In 2021, the company was responsible for 85 percent of the line-produced seaweed in the country.

Another farmer the company works with is Justin Papkee, 31, who fishes near Long Island in Casco Bay. “This country is way behind others in understanding how good kelp is for you and the environment,” Papkee says. “Briana is doing a great job figuring out ways to market it.”

Papkee, who still lobsters year-round and farms kelp a few days a week during the harvest season, says he’s able to maintain his crew of three year-round and bring in extra income. Although he’s hesitant to talk about money, he says this year, after four seasons of kelp farming, he is “in the black.”

Warner calls seaweed “a shock absorber against the volatility of the lobster industry.” When she talks about seaweed and the industry, her speech gains momentum and her passion is on display. “The best thing about kelp is that it is the most climate-friendly food you can eat!” Seaweed, she explains, is farmed without land, pesticides or fresh water.

The environmental benefits of growing seaweed go even further. “There’s so much carbon in the air, and when carbon hits the ocean surface, the ocean absorbs it and changes the pH and degrades shellfish,” Warner says. “Seaweed absorbs the carbon and nitrogen in the water. When you harvest seaweed, you are removing carbon with it and leaving behind a healthier body of water.”

Warner is quick to point out that growing seaweed is not a climate change solution. “It is,” she explains, “a climate change adaptation strategy. It is better than anything else we can eat.” But seaweed, Warner says, can have a massive local climate change effect. To illustrate her point, she says that when mussels are planted on ropes underwater after a kelp harvest, the shell strength is almost twice as strong in those areas, thanks to the removal of the excess carbon.

Until recently, seaweed was always sold dried and, most often, came from Asia or was harvested from the wild in U.S. waters. Atlantic Sea Farms is one of several American companies that sells seaweed that is never dyed or dried. After it is flash frozen, it’s used to make kelp cubes, a nutritious boost to smoothies, salad dressings and sauces. In raw form, the seaweed adds crunch and a briny, umami-rich flavor to seaweed salad, Atlantic Sea Farms’ Sea-Beet Kraut and a take on kimchi called Sea-Chi.

According to Lia Heifetz, 31, of Barnacle Foods in Juneau, Alaska, “seaweed is an ocean multivitamin.” It’s rich in potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium and antioxidants. Heifetz and her two partners harvest wild bull kelp 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 stem) that is 30 feet long and, according to Heifetz, offers a unique texture and flavor similar to apples and fresh bell pepper. Barnacle Foods freezes the 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 coming years but says that in Alaska and many other parts of the country, obtaining permits and licenses involves lengthy hurdles.

“We have a unique opportunity here in Alaska,” she says. “We have 30,000 miles of coast in the state, primarily undeveloped. Consumers are looking for a way to use their food dollars to support causes that are important to them. And seaweed checks all the boxes.”

Warner has also been spreading the word about the power of seaweed. She was recently invited to the 2022 Davos World Economic Forum to speak as part of a program for 20 “ecopreneurs.” She focused her talk on America’s “broken food system” and the potential for Maine’s seaweed aquaculture industry as “a model where people and the planet come first.” But mostly, 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 giving people an opportunity to take hold of their own future in the face of a very uncertain climate.”

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