Maine’s seaweed industry is going through some growing pains. News this week that a state seaweed festival was being canceled is raising questions about how new markets for edible macroalgae from Maine should be developed, and whether the state’s wild seaweeds might be a resource at risk.
The Maine seaweed festival started in 2014, on a rising tide of consumer and business interest in edible seaweeds from the U.S. The 2015 event drew some 3,000 people to South Portland, but this year, festival co-founder Hillary Krapf said it’s time for a break.
“My basic point is until we have some kind of clear regulatory body or governance or rules of traceability and accountability that people have to adhere to to be responsible sea-stewards, I am not comfortable promoting their business and basically giving them a platform to continue what I believe is just irresponsibility,” she said.
Harvesting wild seaweeds such as kelp and dulse for human consumption is a centuries-old practice. And in Maine an assortment of commercial operations has been growing since the 1970s, with several new entrepreneurs coming on the scene over the last decade. Some focus on wild harvest, some are developing seaweed aquaculture farms, and some are doing both.
Krapf said she’s concerned that the infrastructure needed to support rapid growth in the industry isn’t in place. And she’s worried that pressure is mounting to exploit wild seaweed. But she also said she has no direct evidence that the resource in Maine is being irresponsibly harvested or abused.
“I’m not saying that currently anyone is putting our resource in massive jeopardy,” she said.
But in an Associated Press story about the festival’s hiatus that went national this week, the issue was cast as a rift over sustainability, and Krapf was quoted saying the industry in Maine is beset by a “Gold Rush mentality.” It’s caused some stress among Maine’s seaweed entrepreneurs.
“We’re incrementally developing our business, and we’re not aware of — even though there are a handful of other seaweed growers — we’re not aware of a Gold Rush mentality,” said Seth Barker, a former Department of Marine Resources biologist who’s now a partner in a Walpole-based seaweed aquaculture startup called Maine Fresh Sea Farms.
Barker said publicity around the seaweed festival may obscure evidence that farmed seaweed poses no threat to ocean ecosystems, and in fact can improve ocean health.
But while Barker, other industry players interviewed and even Krapf all say there is no immediate threat to the wild resource, they do agree that it could be vulnerable.
Shep Erhart’s company, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, has been harvesting wild seaweeds Down East for four decades. He said that since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, demand for edible seaweeds has skyrocketed. At the same time, climate change and other ecological conditions appear to have stressed the wild seaweeds.
“All that has meant that we haven’t been able to get as much as we needed to meet our demand. One way of looking at this is we’ve reached a sustainable limit. We’re not going to take more than we feel we can go back and find again the following year,” Erhart said.
Seaweed aquaculture holds potential to reduce pressure on the wild resource, he said, but the fledgling farming industry isn’t robust enough yet to buffer the wild resource against potential exploitation. The challenge, he said, will be to avert the kind of overharvesting that characterized the boom and bust of Maine’s sea urchin industry.
“That’s part of why people are looking at us with a magnifying glass. They’re assuming that we’re going to do like all the other fisheries have done, which is shoot ourselves in the foot and overdo it,” Erhart said.
Erhart, the president of the Maine Seaweed Council, an industry group, said he’s hopeful that the council, others in the industry and the state Department of Marine Resources can work together to create a sensible management plan for what could be Maine’s next big commercial fishery.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.