More and more Mainers, from lobstermen to food-truck vendors, are betting that seaweed will soon become a staple of the American diet.
By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
If you’ve seen the Food Network’s Chopped, you’ll grasp the challenge that Hillary Krapf presented to vendors at the first Maine Seaweed Festival, held last Labor Day weekend at Southern Maine Community College’s waterfront campus in South Portland. Krapf, who calls herself a “seaweed educator and activist,” insisted that vendors use Maine seaweed as a “basket ingredient,” which they had to incorporate into every food item. Further, Krapf, told them, “You can’t be boring. You can’t just sprinkle a little seaweed on the top.”
For the most part, the vendors rose to the challenge. Said Sam Gorelick, whose business card identified him as “Chief Dude” at Portland’s Fishin’ Ships, “It was a chance to try some cool trial-and-error.”
Gorelick’s offerings included the High Thai’d — pollock coated with batter made from Thai basil, chili, and a sea algae known as Atlantic laver, topped with ginger and served with spicy Thai aioli.
Charlie Ely, of Portland’s Locally Sauced burritos, faced a stiffer challenge: incorporating seaweed into Mexican food. He used sugar kelp. “We’ve been able to infuse it into our three main sauces: blueberry chipotle barbecue — that’s great with everything; it would go with toothpaste — citrus serrano, and mango habanero. Instead of a vinegar-based sauce, we use a citrus base and you need a little bit of salt with that. That’s where the seaweed plays a role. I take a simplistic approach with my sauces. Less is more — don’t take away from what’s there. So to be able to use seaweed as a salt substitute and actually use less of it — that’s dandy. I was surprised at how well it worked.”
In this case, the judges weren’t celebrity chefs — they were families enjoying an outdoor festival on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Their verdicts on the seaweed smorgasbord?
“Tasty. I’d order this again,” said Portland’s Beth Eilers, after trying Fishin’ Ships fish tacos made with dulse batter. Her husband, Mike Podolsky, had opted for Maine Grain Alliance’s wood-fired pizza topped with sugar kelp rings. “Not much taste, bad or good,” he said. “But it was a texture, and it gave it some [nutritional] oomph.”
Beth and Mike’s two boys, Zeke and Eli, gave the pizza a thumbs-down. (You could almost hear Chopped host Ted Allen gently breaking the news: “Maine Grain Alliance — you’ve been chopped.”)
The boys did, however, love the dessert round, thanks to Lear’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream of Wiscasset. Probably the most successful Lear’s creation was Low Tide, a ginger/citrus ice cream speckled with the same vibrant green sugar kelp that had failed to impress the boys as faux pepperoni.
With seaweed, more so than with other foods, presentation matters.
To most people,” says Sarah Redmond, a marine extension associate at Maine Sea Grant, “seaweed is the stuff washed up on the beach, which tends to be rotting and full of flies.”
The Maine Seaweed Festival, which grew out of a coffee-shop conversation between Redmond and Krapf, is part of an effort by the state and the seaweed industry to rehabilitate seaweed’s image. “There’s just not a lot of awareness that we have all these amazing sea vegetables in our own backyard,” says Redmond. “What we’re talking about are beautiful, healthy, living sea plants.”
“Seaweed is such an undervalued fishery,” agrees Krapf. “People don’t even realize that it is a recognized fishery here in Maine. And it’s ancient. This knowledge is indigenous — it’s not something that we’re just finding out.”
While seaweed may seem exotic as a menu ingredient, Mainers have been using it as fertilizer since the earliest days of the colonists. (Back then it was called sea manure, suggesting that seaweed’s public-image problem isn’t new.) Rockweed is still used as fertilizer, and the harvest still comprises the bulk of the seaweed industry in Maine, although not everyone believes that’s a good thing (see “The Rockweed Controversy,” below). Only in recent decades has a small segment of harvesters focused on seaweed as a food source.
Shep Erhart was one of the first. In 1970, he dropped out of medical school to pursue a different path, and he and his wife, Linnette, headed north from metro New York with the idea of settling on Prince Edward Island. “Long story short, we ended up in Franklin,” he says. “We were part of the first wave of back-to-the-landers up this way.”
“What we’re talking about are beautiful, healthy, living sea plants.” — Sarah Redmond
The back-to-the-landers also waded into the water. “We were eating macrobiotically, and the most expensive thing on our menu was seaweed,” Erhart says. “We saw this [local] seaweed that looked just like the wakame, which is a Japanese seaweed. So we said, ‘Jeez, let’s try that.’ And we loved it. It was delicious — still one of my favorite seaweeds.”
That wakame substitute was alaria, a brown kelp that Erhart first harvested at Schoodic Point. He and Linnette used it in a pot of miso soup. Soon they began experimenting with other types of seaweed, such as sugar kelp and dulse.
Although Erhart’s earliest harvests were strictly for his own use (“We were way ahead of the curve on eating local”), he was soon shipping seaweed out of state as well. “We had this whole network of macrobiotic folks in Boston and New York,” he says, “and when they heard we had got this seaweed, they’d say, ‘Gee, send us a pound.’ So we’d go out and harvest a pound. And one thing led to another — very slowly.”
By 1980, Erhart was the chief seaweed supplier for what was then the country’s largest natural-foods store, Boston’s Erehwon. (“That’s nowhere spelled backwards,” Erhart says. “Typical of the age.”) By 1992, Erhart’s company, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, had moved out of his house and into a former machine shop in Franklin. The company, which has about 18 full-time employees, plans further expansion soon.
Business spiked in 2011, when a tsunami triggered a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, releasing radioactive material across a wide region. Because seaweed is rich in natural iodine, it helps protect the thyroid from exposure to the radioactive variety. And because many consumers in the large Asian market feared contamination in the Pacific, they looked to the U.S. for sources of Atlantic seaweed. “Since Fukushima, we’ve just been slammed,” Erhart says.
But seaweed offers more than iodine. Multiple studies have found that large-scale industrial agriculture, which emphasizes efficiency, leaches nutrients from the soil — and that, in turn, has led to a depletion of the vitamins and minerals in many fruits and vegetables in the produce section of your local market.
Seaweed can more than make up the difference. In addition to its high protein content, for example, dulse “has got every mineral your body uses,” says Erhart. “It’s got relatively low carbohydrates and almost no fat. The nutrient profile is very positive.”
Because of that, says Erhart, “Some people who are mineral deficient get around it and they go crazy. Before they know it, they’ve eaten a whole bag, like candy. And it won’t make you sick sick, but it will make you very thirsty and it can kind of buzz you out because it’s so energizing. Like anything, you need to eat it in moderation. A little bit goes a long way.”
The colonists called it sea manure, suggesting seaweed’s image problem is not new.
Because of that big bang for the nutritional buck, a handful of ambitious Mainers are bullish on seaweed’s future as a food source. “Maine is the first state in the U.S. to commercially farm kelp,” says Redmond. “We’re definitely leaders now. We already have aquaculture laws in place that give you a framework to start farming seaweed. A lot of other states don’t have a clear, established system, so their regulators are going, ‘We don’t even know what this is or how to deal with it — so you can’t do it.’ In Maine, the DMR [Department of Marine Resources] has a terrific set of guidelines. So in terms of trying to develop an industry, Maine is unique.”
Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, which currently gets its seaweed from a network of independent harvesters (“Very independent,” Erhart says), is among the companies that have begun experimenting with the farmed variety. That raises a question: Will America cultivate a large enough appetite for kelp to justify large-scale cultivation? “Not as we sell it right now,” says Erhart. “It will probably have to be hidden in something, like a teabag or a morning croissant.”
Tollef Olson, CEO and founder of Ocean Approved, LLC, is among those betting the farm on seaweed. “This is the longest surfboard in my quiver!” Olson yells above the roar of a 90-horsepower Honda engine. He is heading across Casco Bay in his 18-foot Maritime skiff, Longboard, and he can’t conceal his glee as he thump-thump-thumps through the wake of a passing tug.
Like nearly everyone else connected with the seaweed industry, Olson, a native Mainer, loves the ocean. He enjoys navigating the gantlet of multicolored lobster buoys, smiling as he points out a pair of porpoises doing a synchronized-swimming routine. It’s mid-September and there’s a bite in the breeze, but Olson, a year-round surfer, is wearing flip-flops and shorts. “I hold out as long as I can,” he says.
Fort Gorges, a mid-19th-century relic, is visible to starboard. To port looms a mammoth cruise ship, a symbol of the waterfront’s present. And full speed ahead, in the lee of Little Chebeague Island, lies a glimpse of what Olson hopes is a key to a promising future.
It’s not much to look at.
A 24-foot harvest barge, equipped with a couple of davits, is moored in relatively shallow water, away from the navigation channel and the lobster traps. The bottom is muddy here. Olson cuts the engine as he approaches, and the sudden quiet falls like a blanket. Olson grabs a buoy and hauls up some line, which looks fouled. But it isn’t; the green stuff is supposed to be there.
Olson’s voice rises. “There’s one!” he says. “See that little guy waving?”
Fluttering like a tiny green banner in the current is a baby sugar kelp. It’s only about 2 inches long. But by March it will be several feet long, growing at a rate of up to four inches a day at peak season.
“Some people who are mineral deficient get around it, and they go crazy.” — Shep Erhart
Olson predicts that seaweed farming will grow just as fast along the Maine coast. “In 10 or 15 years,” he says, “I think seaweed could rival lobsters as an industry.”
Mainers take such pronouncements with a grain of sea salt. Olson understands; he’s heard it all before. “I’m 58 years old, and having been involved in numerous fisheries, including mussels, urchins, etc., I have not seen a fishery that humankind cannot destroy in very short order,” he says. “We see farming kelp as being part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem.”
Overharvesting has devastated conventional fin- and shellfisheries. Fish farms can help restore populations, but they can also introduce new problems, such as high concentrations of nitrogen. That’s where seaweed farms can, in theory, be part of the solution.
“In Asia, they’ve started growing seaweed around these big salmon farms to absorb nutrients that burden the water column in the surrounding area,” says Erhart. “It’s called integrated aquaculture, or the fancy name for it is IMTA — integrated multi–trophic aquaculture.”
Seaweed farms can complement existing fisheries in more ways than one. “Kelp is countercyclical,” says Olson. “We can plant it in September or October, even as late as November into December, and have it harvested by May and early June. That’s completely the opposite of the strong point of the lobster season.”
Olson boasts that Ocean Approved is the first American seaweed farm “to take kelp from spore to table.” (The company develops sporophytes in the marine sciences lab at Southern Maine Community College; after four to six weeks, the young kelp plants are ready for the farm.) He rattles off facts, figures, and catch phrases with the practiced delivery of someone who has spent considerable time courting investors. That’s understandable; to succeed, kelp farming requires substantial buy-in, not just from the financial sector but also from researchers, regulators, and the working waterfront.
“In 10 or 15 years, I think seaweed could rival lobsters as an industry.” — Tolef Olson
“What we need for infrastructure isn’t quite there yet,” says Redmond, whose broad job description includes work at the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, “because if you have a whole farm of kelp, you need to be able to get it out of the water and process it and find people to sell it to. We still need to build that whole chain in order to have people jump in on this and have it be commercially viable as a large-scale industry.”
The most important link in the chain, of course, is the last one: the consumer. To become commercially viable, seaweed has to make the same transition that lobster made long ago — from off-putting to sought-after.
That was the idea behind the food trucks at the Maine Seaweed Festival. “Part of what we wanted to do was to have people eat normal American foods that they like — like ice cream, burritos, and pizza — with seaweed in them,” Redmond says. “Just to show them that the idea isn’t that crazy.
“It’s not about sitting down and eating a great big bowl of seaweed. It’s about figuring ways to incorporate it into your everyday foods. And by eating a little bit every day, over time you get the benefits.”
The festival, incidentally, will be back at Southern Maine Community College this year on August 29 (for details, visit seaweedfest.com). If you go, try the chicken burrito with the citrus serrano sauce. You won’t even know there’s seaweed in there. But your body will.
Rockweed: The Harvest Is Cut and Dried. The Issues Are Not.
Sugar kelp, dulse, alaria, and all other edible seaweeds combined account for only about 5 percent of Maine’s annual harvest. The remaining 95 percent consists of rockweed, that slimy brown stuff you often see clinging to rocks at low tide. Fresh rockweed is used to form the bed for the traditional Maine clambake. Once it’s dried and processed, rockweed is a versatile commodity used in nutritional supplements, cosmetics, animal feed, and fertilizer.
To meet this demand, more and more Mainers are making the switch from harvesting traditional fin- and shellfish to rockweed. Maine had just 33 licensed rockweed harvesters in 2003; the number is closer to 60 today. And the harvest has grown from fewer than 4 million pounds in 2003 to about 15 million in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Former lobsterman Doug Wood, of Bremen, is among the converts. “Lobster prices kept going down,” Wood says, “and I saw an opportunity to get into the seaweed business when a mechanical-harvest boat became available.” Now, Wood, who’s in his mid-40s, actually sees a future — something he hadn’t been able to do as a lobsterman. “I hope to be able to pass this on to my son,” he says.
But some conservationists worry that Wood and others like him have simply traded one shortsighted plan for another. “If we take away too much rockweed, it’s not going to be ecologically sustainable,” says Robin Hadlock Seeley, a Cornell University marine biologist who serves as an academic advisor at the Shoals Marine Laboratory. “The problem is, we don’t know where that point is.” Seeley, who formed the Rockweed Coalition in 2008, has particular concerns about Cobscook Bay. “There’s a very tall rockweed forest there,” she says, “and companies are drawn to it.”
The state has tried to broker a compromise in Cobscook Bay by creating no-harvest zones and limiting each harvester to one of 36 designated sectors to prevent overlap. It’s a first step in a long-range Rockweed Management Plan that’s bound to become more comprehensive with time.
Unless the whole idea of rockweed management becomes moot. “The interesting thing is that the state sells us a license and they also patrol with wardens,” says Wood, “and yet they won’t claim exclusive ownership of the resource.”
It all goes back to the Colonial Ordinance, which grants oceanfront property rights to the mean low-water mark in Maine, with exceptions for “fishing, fowling, and navigation.”
Harvesting seaweed, which is regulated as a fishery, while navigating the intertidal zone at high tide would seem to qualify under two of the ordinance’s three enumerated exceptions. Nevertheless, it says right on the harvest permit: “Since ownership of the seaweed in the intertidal zone is an unsettled question that only Maine courts can definitively answer, the State of Maine takes no position on (1) whether the public may harvest seaweed from those areas without interfering with the private property rights of the upland owner or (2) whether the upland property owners may prohibit the public harvest of seaweed in those areas.”
And that probably means that those who don’t see eye to eye on rockweed harvesting will eventually see each other in court.