Challenges, Opportunities, and Future Directions for Maine Seaweed

Introduction

Seaweed farming is the newest and fastest growing aquaculture sector in the US. Since the industry is still young, there are specific challenges and opportunities relevant to the seaweed sector that differ from the general challenges and opportunities surrounding aquaculture. With Maine as the current leader in national seaweed production, it is important for farmers, researchers, processors, and product developers working with seaweed to understand these challenges and opportunities. Leveraging this knowledge, the Maine seaweed industry can develop plans to continue shaping innovation around seaweed aquaculture in the US going forward.

A. Getting the Lease

If you ask Maine aquaculture farmers what one of their biggest challenges is when it comes to starting their business and becoming profitable, many will say getting a lease. This is not a factor that is specific to seaweed farming, but its importance warrants a short explanation for aspiring seaweed farmers and those looking to expand their businesses. The timeline for the current leasing process in Maine can be anywhere from six months to three years depending on a number of factors, including the site in question, what organisms will be farmed, the size of the proposed farm, and how the farm fits in with the needs, wants, and character of the local community. 

The leasing process in the state justifiably considers many environmental and social factors when deciding if an application for a farm site should be approved. The best way to work with the challenge of obtaining an aquaculture lease is to be thorough and do your homework on the proposed farm site ahead of time. Consider both the environmental and social factors when putting together your lease application and speak with other local aquaculture farmers to understand what they did during their lease applications. Getting an aquaculture lease does not happen overnight, so it pays to be patient, considerate, methodical, and flexible during the process. (For more about aquaculture leasing, see our learning module on The Leasing Process in Maine).

B. Changing Climate

Among numerous negative impacts, climate change is causing waters in the Gulf of Maine to warm rapidly which directly affects the environmental suitability of the Maine coast for growing seaweed. The kelp species which are currently farmed in Maine are native, cold water species with optimal temperature ranges between 50 and 62 degrees. At present, nearshore waters in the Gulf of Maine tend to be between 35 and 40 degrees F from December to May which is when the bulk of farmed seaweed growth happens. It is projected that the Gulf could warm as much as 1 to 7 degrees F on average by 2100. Although this warming may continue to be within the range of the seaweed species we currently grow, intense warming events known as marine heat waves (MHWs) could spike local temperatures above the optimal tolerance ranges of farmed seaweed species. Combined, more frequently occurring MHWs and overall increases in average water temperatures could lead to a shortened growing seasons, increased biofouling occurring earlier in the season, heightened risks of disease, or issues relating to the natural seaweed reproductive cycles. 

In more developed seaweed industries in Eastern Asia, one of the solutions to growing cold-water species in warmer water has been the development of selective breeding for temperature tolerant seaweed strains and disease resistant seaweed strains. While these techniques were originally used to expand the southern range of Saccharina japonica farms in China, they could also be translated to climate resilience in the seaweed aquaculture industry here in Maine.

C. Limited Seaweed Species for Farming

Another barrier to growing the Maine seaweed industry is the limited number of seaweed species currently cultivated here. At present, there is market demand to support the expansion of sugar kelp, winged kelp, and skinny kelp farming, in addition to native, high market-value species that are not currently farmed, like dulse (Palmaria palmata) and nori (Porphyra spp.). As more seaweed farmers in Maine and beyond bring kelp products to market, it will also be important for Maine farmers to experiment with growing new species. Developing cultivation strategies and nurseries for new seaweeds will be a process that happens over multiple years. Research is needed now to develop seeding and grow-out technologies for novel species with commercial promise.

D. Competition in Seaweed Markets

One factor that can complicate the business of seaweed farming is finding competitive markets to sell Maine seaweed products. Many of the East Asian markets where seaweeds products are already established are not accessible to Maine seaweed companies. The price per pound of seaweed in those markets is so low that Maine companies just can’t compete and remain profitable. Similarly, many existing US products that contain seaweed rely on imported, inexpensive East Asian and Southeast Asian seaweeds to keep their prices reasonable for US consumers. With stiff competition in traditional seaweed markets, the greatest potential for Maine seaweed lies in value-added food products for human consumption and other high-value markets like pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. 

Finding or creating a market niche within these parameters requires attention to consumer needs/wants as well as creativity with marketing strategies. Some success has been found by Maine seaweed companies through the creation of entirely new seaweed products that appeal to a broad American palette. Consider Kelp Krunch™ bars from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, Sea-Chi™ from Atlantic Sea Farms, and Seaweedish Meatballs from North Coast Seafood– all products designed to bring seaweed into American diets in novel ways.

On the marketing side of things, some strategies that Maine seaweed companies use include capitalizing on the Maine seafood branding that centers a clean environment, good jobs, and high-quality, healthy food. By focusing on the benefits of their seaweed products beyond just the taste, seaweed companies are able to attain price points for their products that make seaweed farming economically viable for Maine businesses.

E. Limited Processing Options

Somewhere between harvesting farmed seaweed and selling seaweed products to consumers, there is a bottleneck that currently limits the growth of the Maine seaweed industry: processing capacity and spatial distribution of seaweed processors across the state. Seaweed has a short shelf-life as a raw product– it only lasts a couple of days before its quality begins to deteriorate. For farmers who do their own processing (like line drying kelp), the whole affair can be time consuming, space-constrained, and limiting. For farmers working with commercial processors, the difficulties may come when getting their seaweed to the processing facilities located far away within a short time window.

In Southern Maine, some processing and distribution companies like Atlantic Sea Farms will purchase raw kelp at the dock and take care of transporting the product to their facilities. However, this coordination may only apply to farms within a certain distance of the processing facility, especially across Maine’s large coastline. Moving up the coast away from Portland, it can become more challenging to connect with seaweed processors. The options for seaweed farmers in Downeast Maine can be more limited to independent processing, product development, and marketing, which can be a major barrier for people hoping to start their own seaweed farm.

To increase the production capacity of seaweed farming in Maine and reduce the challenges for farmers looking to get started, there is a place for additional seaweed processing facilities and/or raw product transportation routes. With increased access to the seaweed value chain beyond Southern Maine, there will be more growth potential for seaweed aquaculture in other regions of the state.

What’s your vision?

The numerous and continually evolving challenges and opportunities in the Maine seaweed industry provide various possibilities for the future of the industry. Decisions that are made today about which research is prioritized, where leases are permitted, what farm strategies are implemented, how seaweed products are marketed, what new seaweed products are developed, and more, will shape what the seaweed industry becomes in the future. Because seaweed is such a new industry in Maine and the United States at large, the choices we make today are particularly powerful when it comes to creating a thriving industry.

Consider a vision of the future where seaweed farming is an alternative source of income for people working on the water; local communities promote Maine seaweed in their own diets with the help of innovative culinary experimentation; researchers work with seaweed farmers and processors to create best practices both on the water and elsewhere in the value-chain; kids are excited to learn more about the Maine coast and feel a connection to place through the food they eat; people feel good eating the healthy sea vegetable that supports their community; policy makers balance farmer and community needs when considering seaweed aquaculture developments; opportunities for jobs and environmental benefits from seaweed farms are equitably distributed across the coast; and farms are designed to enhance their ecosystems– both environmentally and socially.

That’s a long list of very rosy possibilities for the future of seaweed aquaculture in Maine that may seem unrealistic or oblivious to challenges that will arise as the industry continues to develop. However, the purpose of a vision is to imagine what could be possible and to provide a goal to work towards. The vision above is one possibility for the Maine seaweed industry– it is a future founded on collaboration between research, industry, education, and community. But the industry is not limited to one vision. Visions can include starting a single cooperative seaweed farm, creating a seaweed-themed assignment for students, inventing a new seaweed product, starting a seaweed processing company, or collaborating across organizations to work on the future of the industry as a whole. Take what you know from your own life experience and what you have learned about seaweed here to create your own vision– however large or small. Then find your collaborators and start photosynthesizing!