His head disappeared beneath the water as he followed the frond of kelp to the ocean floor. With a knife, Tom Roth sliced through the base of the plant, then resurfaced, spewing water from his snorkel.
“Sometimes he’ll get a big piece and yell ‘Woohoo,’” said Eric Lund of Saco while rowing a raft through a kelp bed off the shore of Cape Elizabeth. Lund was looking for a spot to hop overboard and help his boss, Roth, with the last sugar kelp harvest of the season.
Sea algae is the key ingredient in SeaCrunch, a gluten-free bar made of almonds, sesame seeds, cranberries, maple syrup and kelp that Roth created.
The energy bar is one of the newest seaweed-based products his growing company VitaminSea Seaweed in Scarborough, produces and markets to health food stores throughout New England.
Roth began harvesting Maine seaweed seven years ago, initially to pay for the construction of a red skiff.
“We started off with our first order of two little 40-pound bags [of rockweed],” said Roth, who sold the seaweed to lobster co-ops for packing lobsters and shellfish. “That developed into 200 bags a week in a matter of a month.”
A commercial fisherman for 28 years, Roth decided to sell his two fishing boats and invest in the seaweed industry. He joined the Maine Seaweed Council, did his research, and began developing seaweed-based products.
“I just love being in the water in the kelp beds,” said Roth. “It’s phenomenally beautiful when you get to see the kelp swaying back and forth in the tides. The colors of the different kelps. It’s just an amazing thing to see.”
To reflect the nutritional value of their products, Roth and his wife, Kelly, named their company VitaminSea.
Maine’s maritime medley
To seaweed harvesters, the term “seaweed” is rather general.
Roth harvests a wide variety of seaweed, starting with sugar kelp in late March, when air temperatures off the southern Maine coast can dip into the teens.
“The water is still 35-38 [degrees], but it’s pretty cold,” he said.
March through May, he spends his time swimming through sugar kelp beds off Cape Elizabeth, Harpswell, Boothbay and Peaks Island.
“I just kick out my legs and the kelp wraps around them, then I follow it down to its base,” Roth said. He cuts each frond carefully, leaving the holdfast, or root, so the plant can regenerate. Sugar kelp can grow several feet in a matter of months. It is, after all, a weed.
Snails, starfish and sea urchins start feeding on the kelp when the water warms up in May, and the kelp begins changing color when it’s past its prime.
By then, it’s time for Roth to focus his energy on other sea vegetables, such as rockweed, Irish moss, bright green sea lettuce, dulse and oarweed, all of which keep him and his two employees busy until November.
‘Sea-licious’ and nutritious
“If you would have told me 10 years ago to eat seaweed, I would have looked at you and said, ‘It’s not happening,’” Roth said. Yet today, he incorporates seaweed into his everyday meals.
“It’s grown on me,” he said.
Among the many VitaminSea products is the Roth’s cookbook, “Simply Sea-Licious,” which introduces people to cooking with sea vegetables.
“The health benefits of kelp are astronomical,” Roth said. “All the sea vegetables are very high in iron, magnesium, zinc, iodine — the nori has a lot of the B vitamins that you need, amino acids. It’s a powerhouse.”
Each sea vegetable has something slightly different to offer in taste and nutrition.
“Here in the United States, there’s such a small amount of sea vegetables being consumed, where in other parts of the world, it’s a staple,” Roth said.
Roth harvests and sells whole leaf as well as flaked kombu, wakame and nori, three types of seaweed that are key ingredients in Japanese cuisine and provide nutrients that are essential to overall health.
A sea of possibilities
In less than a decade, VitaminSea has expanded to offer about 30 seaweed-based products, from a 0.25-pound bag of Irish moss, an edible thickening agent for things such as beer and ice cream for $6, to a 30-pound bag of rockweed for $65.
In addition to a wide variety of whole leaf, flaked and granulated sea vegetables, they offer simple “Sea-sonings” (such as a mixture of dulse, sea salt, kelp and garlic), “SeaNutrients” animal supplements, and liquid seaweed and fish garden food.
“We’re finding that they have over a year shelf life because kelp is a natural food preservative,” said Roth, who has recently released a second SeaCrunch flavor that includes wild blueberries and dark chocolate.
But seaweed isn’t just for eating.
Maine’s bladderwrack, a leafy plant with air bladders, is used in making skin care products.
“When you put that in hot water, it releases a gel that is absorbed into your skin so easily. It softens your skin,” said Roth. “They’re also using it for skin disorders like psoriasis.”
Future VitaminSea products may include seaweed-based soap, bath products and natural sunblock.
Then there’s always the possibility of seaweed art. Roth recently sent a package of fresh Maine seaweed to New York to be used in a photoshoot.
“I hope they’ve used fresh digitata (oarweed) before,” said Roth. “Because after it warms up, it gets pretty slimy.”
Working hard and green
Off Cape Elizabeth, Roth held a 6-foot-long frond of glistening sugar kelp in the air, inspecting its frills before placing it in a round plastic basket, buoyed by an inner tube. Each time he filled the basket, Lund replaced it with an empty one, then unloaded the full basket into the skiff, creating an impressive pile of seaweed in the bow.
“This will be my last basket,” Roth yelled to Lund.
“Watch. He’ll pile his last basket up enough for two baskets,” Lund said. “He loves this.”
Later that day, they drove 500 pounds of kelp to a large field in Buxton. Roth’s second employee, Eddie Leighton of Biddeford, joined them beneath the bare metal frame of a large greenhouse. There they hung the kelp, strand by strand, to dry in the sun.
Smaller seaweed would have been laid out on 280 mesh tables lined up in a nearby field.
Though VitaminSea is growing and the future looks promising for the seaweed industry, Roth still maintains a secondary job working on a bunker barge moored near the Statue of Liberty. He spends two weeks aboard the barge and two weeks at his home in Buxton working on harvesting and marketing VitaminSea products.
“People say, ‘You work hard.’ And I say, ‘Well, when you love what you do, it’s not even considered work.’ And that’s how I feel about it,” Roth said. “It’s a great industry to be involved in. It’s definitely the future.”