The Future of New England Seafood

Maine’s Saltwater Crop

A mesh bag of mechanically harvested rockweed. Image via Maine DMR.

Seaweed, which flourishes in the cold water and rocky terrain of the Gulf of Maine, is a vital component for healthy ecosystem functioning. In addition to being an excellent source for productivity, seaweed serves as critical habitat and nursery area for several invertebrate and vertebrate species.  Species such as lobsters, crabs, rock gunnel, periwinkles, and many species of juvenile fish depend on seaweed to either provide protection from predators, act as a buffer from strong currents, or serve as substrate upon which filter-feeders, like barnacles, can anchor.

Apart from the significant ecosystem value of seaweed in terms of productivity, critical habitat, and nursery area, seaweed also has substantial economic value. For over one hundred years, the people of Maine have been collecting seaweed for personal use. However, this practice is beginning to gain traction as a new and valuable commercial harvest. In fact, from 2007 to 2013 the industry doubled in size, with landings from 2014 alone valued at $368,000 and an estimated value for the products created from this seaweed at $20 million. While there are over two-hundred and fifty species of seaweed in Maine, the most commonly collected species of seaweed is rockweed, which is used for fertilizer, animal feed, as a food thickening agent, and for nutritional supplements. Recently, a few companies are even trying to take it further by marketing seaweed as a source of food.

Maine provides approximately ten harvestable and cultivatable seaweed species, including dulse, kelp, alaria, laver, sea lettuce, bladderwrack, and Irish moss. In 2014 the State of Maine produced over 17.7 million pounds of seaweed, either through harvesting or aquaculture. In 2006, Maine replaced California as the top producer of seaweed in the United States.

The harvesting of seaweeds typically involves walking along the shoreline and cutting the live strands from the rocks using a knife or sickle. For rockweed, harvesters will travel in small boats and pull it up from the shallows using cutting rakes or special mechanized harvesting boats. However, harvesting practices have been labeled as destructive and detrimental to local marine habitats. While the Maine Seaweed Council, a group of harvesters, business owners, and researchers, advises removing only 30% of a bed in a growing season, as well as leaving sixteen inches of plant attached to the rock – many a time local residents have found areas that have been completely stripped of vegetation. According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, cut rockweed can take two to three years to recover to its original state; however, this number is variable depending on where the plant was cut. Moreover, there are conflicting opinions of the definition of “original state,” and the amount of time rockweed takes to regrow to this threshold.

The cutting of rockweed is leaving many dismayed. Concerned residents do not want to see seaweed suffer the same fate as other loosely regulated fisheries. There are fears that the rapid and widespread removal of rockweed will have detrimental impacts on local species and ecosystems. As previously mentioned, rockweed and other seaweed species provide critical habitat for a variety of species and the widespread removal of seaweed could leave them without protection, food, habitat, or nursery grounds.

In an effort to prevent this from happening, representatives from government organizations like the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have already recommended over 400 areas that should be off-limits to seaweed cutting. Similarly, many private landowners are angered by harvesters who are taking live seaweed from their beaches and want to be able to prevent harvesting on their shorefronts. However, harvesters state that they remove less than 1% of the total rockweed biomass in the State.

The state of Maine is grappling with monitoring the expanding industry, as well as compromising with those who have come out against harvesting seaweed. The State management plan, though finalized in January 2014, is still incomplete – while the State requires all harvesters to obtain a license, issues such as enforcement of regulations, as well as appropriate harvesting levels remain unsettled. Furthermore, the current management plan only provides recommendations, but not regulations for the harvesting of rockweed.

Alternatively, there are those who are choosing to enter the market in a different fashion. Several organizations have developed around the aquaculture of seaweed species. This provides an alternative to the wild harvested species. Companies like Maine Fresh Sea Farms, located in Damariscotta, are growing kelp and seaweed seedlings in laboratories which are then transferred to ropes suspended in the ocean. Here, the plants will be allowed to grow to full size. Eventually the seaweed will be harvested and then converted into food products. Already Maine based companies are utilizing seaweed in various cuisines – spices, power bars, breads, smoothies, and beer. Seaweed farmers tout the advantages of “sea veggies,” – their crops are carbon neutral, do not require freshwater, grow quickly, and can be grown year round. Non-profit groups are also looking to the future of Maine’s seaweed, the Maine Technology Institute has already pledge $50,000 to help develop the infrastructure.

As this new industry continues to grow and expand, many Maine residents are optimistic, and eager to see how far seaweed can go.


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