I first encountered seaweed salad as an ingredient in a vegetarian poke bowl at a restaurant on the Jetty in Fort Pierce, Florida. It was slightly sweet, a bit nutty, with a cold noodle-like texture. Since then I’ve sought it out, most recently finding it on a menu on Block Island, Rhode Island. Little did I know that seaweed farming is providing a lifeline to New England lobster fishers whose industry is on the verge of collapse due to climate change.
As I meandered around the farmer’s market in North Truro, Massachusetts, this week, I couldn’t help but to be drawn to a booth selling lobsters. As a vegetarian, it wasn’t the commodity itself that attracted me but, rather, the price per pound: $12.99. Ouch. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that lobsters sold for a fraction of that?
The Bellwether of Long Island Sound
Lobstering has been big business on Connecticut’s Long Island Sound. However, in the last 20 years, the population of lobsters and lobster fishers has tumbled. Lobsters thrive in cold water, which has become less common in and around Long Island Sound.
Research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that lobsters can remain happy and healthy in waters up to 20°C (68°F). After that, they hit a “stress threshold.” Prolonged exposure to warmer water causes problems with their respiratory and immune systems, increases chances of shell disease, and makes it harder for the marine animals to successfully reproduce.
Three decades ago, there were approximately equal numbers of warm water species and cold water species found in Long Island Sound. Today, the number of warm-adapted species outpace cold-adapted species by nearly 3 to 1, according to the CT Council of Environmental Quality.
Maine’s Looming Lobster Catastrophe
Maine has been hit especially hard by the lobster dropoff.
The Maine marine economy has been almost entirely dependent on the nearshore landings of the American lobster. As the effects of the climate crisis become evident, Maine’s coastal waters have experienced as dramatic a shift as anywhere in the world. Small boat, community scale, coastal commercial fishing communities have persisted in the area, often locked into a single species permitting approach.
A 2018 study seemed to suggest that the Maine lobster fishery was more resilient than its collapsed southern New England counterparts due to adaptive management strategies (e.g., escape slot sizes, minimum and maximum size limits, and conservation of egg-bearing females).
Alas, that hopeful forecast was not to be, and even the northern lobster fisheries of Maine are facing long-term, climate-driven vulnerability.
But there’s hope: seaweed farming.
How does Seaweed Farming Work?
Seaweed farming is a huge global business valued at $6 billion, yet in the US it is still getting its sea legs (pun intended). Kelp, a New England native seaweed, can serve as a viable second crop for lobster fishers and shellfish farmers whose catch has been affected by warming waters. The issue has become less a viability subject and more a matter of turning fishers into kelp farming believers.
Around New England there are perhaps 40 – 50 farmers of all sizes and experience levels working small ocean plots of a native kelp species, Saccharina latissima, right now, with Maine at the forefront of regional production. From 2015 to 2020, the harvest of farmed sugar kelp in Maine increased more than 3,000% from 6.6 mt wet weight. In Massachusetts, there are a handful of farmers, primarily around the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard. Two species of seaweeds that are approved for cultivation and commercial sale in Connecticut include the sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and Gracilaria tikvahaie.
To grow kelp, the fishers suspend 1,000-foot-long ropes covered with tiny kelp seeds in late fall. Over the winter, the kelp grows vertically in the water column to lengths of 6 to 10 feet. Harvested in the spring, each rope has close to 6,000 pounds of fresh sugar kelp attached to it.
The kelp is sold freshly chopped, dried, or flash frozen. It can be a cube in smoothies, served in long noodle form for slaws or wraps, added as an ingredient in slaw or kraut, used as a garnish on entrees, or substituted for pasta — and more. (It can used as large animal food, too.)
Seaweed is easy to grow, sustainable, and nutritious. It is farmed without land, pesticides, or fresh water.
A Case Study of Seaweed Farming
Briana Warner is the CEO and president of Atlantic Sea Farms. The 38-year-old, who was chronicled recently in the Washington Post, sees seaweed farming as the solution to revolutionize Maine’s struggling fishing industry.
In summer 2018, Warner was offered the position of CEO at Atlantic Sea Farms, the largest value added kelp product producer in the state. 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. It sells its products in more than 2,000 stores in the US, and restaurants and college cafeterias are becoming popular customers.
In 2021, the company was responsible for 85% of the line-produced seaweed in the country. Warner calls seaweed “a shock absorber against the volatility of the lobster industry.”
Pointing out how “overdependence on one monoculture is very scary,” Warner says that growing seaweed is not a climate change solution but, rather, a climate change adaptation strategy. Seaweed can help a community to foster positive carbon removal, she explains. An example is 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.
Warner has also been an advocate for the power and promise of seaweed cultivation. She was 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.”
“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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