To develop an organic seaweed collaborative model that will engage all to a new relationship to the abundant sea.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The State of Maine is a microcosm of food system issues and opportunities. Maine’s diverse landscape of extensive rocky coastline, heavily forested interior, and tremendous freshwater and marine resources have always supported natural resource systems, from indigenous subsistence to forestry, shipbuilding, farming, hunting, homesteading, fishing, and mineral extraction. A rugged landscape, short summers and long winters, and a heritage of survival and self reliance has created a strong sense of independence, strong connection to and dependence on the natural world, and a reputation of hard work and ingenuity. There is growing appreciation for the diverse local food system that produces seafood, blueberries, potatoes, grain, vegetables, fruit, dairy, meats, and more. Maine has a strong organic farming community of small family owned farms, and a growing reputation for its culinary, craft beer, spirits, and specialty food creativity. The natural beauty of the land and seascape supports a seasonal tourism industry, attracting visitors from all over the world.
The Coast of Maine is dynamic and diverse, with over 5,000 miles of tidal shore and island coastline made up of numerous peninsulas, coves, islands, pools, marshes, and guts. Mostly rocky with a large intertidal region of 8-15ft, the Maine coast is a biodiverse region that is part of the wider Gulf of Maine, a semi-enclosed sea that represents one of world’s most dynamic and productive marine ecosystems. Indigenous peoples relied on the abundance of seafood the coastal areas provided, as evidenced by widespread shell middens. The abundance of Atlantic Cod in the Gulf of Maine drew European fishermen to the New World over 400 years ago, leading to the colonization of North America. The villages and towns that line Maine’s coast were built on diverse and abundant fishing industries over a hundred years ago, and included essential working waterfront, processing, and shipping infrastructure for a wide variety of seafood species. The groundfish, cod, herring, shrimp, shellfish, seaweed, lobster, worm, urchin, and crab fisheries have always supported communities along the coast of Maine, with most coastal communities still identifying today as fishing towns. Most of the people involved in the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting industries own or work within small independent businesses, showcasing the strong independent streak exhibited by most Mainers that rely upon natural resources for their livelihoods. Maine is a place where man’s existence is still intertwined and reliant upon the natural world, but we risk losing these connections unless we can move from an exploitive to cultivated relationship with nature.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The Gulf of Maine has historically been an abundant fishing ground, but commercial fisheries have drastically changed over time with overfishing, ecosystem shifts, habitat, and environmental changes, and is expected to continue to change with a changing climate. A once diverse wild-caught seafood industry has declined by almost 70% in the last 20 years, creating a dominant lobster fishing industry that is dangerously dependent on a species that is sensitive to ocean warming, disease, and stress. Would-be fishermen are barred from entering closed or limited entry fisheries, and the loss of many viable fisheries like shrimp and groundfish have reduced opportunity for working in seafood. Most of the villages and towns established along the coast were built on diverse and abundant fishing industries over a hundred years ago, and included essential working waterfront infrastructure to serve these industries. Very little has been invested in working waterfront with the decline of the fisheries, and the infrastructure that remains is woefully inadequate after decades to centuries of use. Declining opportunities in seafood production and rising real estate values have restricted working waterfront infrastructure; out of the 5,300 miles of the Maine coast, less than 20 miles of working waterfront access remain. As coastal real estate values rise and natural resource economies decline, we are at risk of losing our irreplaceable and invaluable working waterfronts and fishing communities unless we invest in the future of seafood production, which will have to be drastically different from the exploitative systems of the past.
While the tourism, coastal real estate, and southern urban economies of the State are on the rise, the rest of Maine is losing population with declining economic opportunities and increasing poverty. Maine is the oldest state in the nation, with the migration of younger people out of the State, and a rise in retirees moving to Maine, trends that often make it difficult for businesses to find sufficient workforce in rural areas. The aging population, long winters, low incomes, and disconnection from the natural world is resulting in an increase in diet and lifestyle related diseases, including a 100% increase in obesity rates in the past decade. While some people still have home gardens and obtain meat for their families through restricted hunting, the majority of the population relies on grocery store chains for their food, and often live in areas with poor access to healthy food. All these trends of decreasing opportunities and decreasing health are a result of our increasing disconnection with the natural world. We are starving in our own ruined landscape, whilst we live in a garden of potential Eden.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” said Emerson, addressing an audience on The Method of Nature in 1841. Declining wild fishing opportunities, changing ocean dynamics, and disappearing working waterfront infrastructure represent our changing relationship with the ocean and contribute to our food, economic, and national insecurity. Our vision is to develop a new sustainable, collaborative, responsible, organic seaweed aquaculture industry in Maine that will provide opportunities to economically disadvantaged coastal communities, support and build working waterfront and seafood infrastructure, create healthy food, feed, soils, plants, and biomaterials, and nurture new relationships with our ocean resources for people and planet. Diversification opportunities for fishermen, youth, women, poor, and underserved populations will support resiliency in rural coastal communities, especially Hancock and Washington counties, or “Downeast” Maine, one of the poorest areas in the nation. This approach can also then be applied all over the world to develop scalable nature-based collaborative systems on land and sea.
The potential for seaweed aquaculture in Maine is immense. A growing awareness of sea vegetables as nutritious versatile “superfoods”, and a growing distrust of Asian-produced seaweeds due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and water pollution has resulted in an increased demand for North Atlantic seaweed products. Seaweed aquaculture has the potential to fill this demand in a responsible, low impact, environmentally sustainable way, while providing nutritious seafood and creating economic opportunities for coastal communities. Seaweed aquaculture is a sustainable and environmentally responsible form of food production, requiring no fresh water, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or arable land, and very little fossil fuel, and can be organically certified in Maine through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). A seaweed aquaculture industry in Maine could contribute to Maine’s marine heritage by providing new opportunities for diversification in the fishing communities and supporting the working waterfront. Seaweed aquaculture requires a relatively low start up investment and has a winter growing season from fall to spring, opposite the busy lobster and tourist season, making it an attractive option for economic diversification for lobster fisherman, shellfish farmers, or others interested in seafood production.
The Organic Kelp Collaborative (OKC) is a Maine Seaweed Exchange Program designed to encourage the development of an organic network of seaweed farmers and processors to scale the industry with a sustainable community-based model. By providing training, support, and market opportunities to seaweed farmers and processors, we seek to develop a high quality, high-value seaweed aquaculture industry based on shared values, collaboration, and passion for our work.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The Organic Kelp Collaborative seeks to create a scalable model that will strengthen existing fishing communities by bringing together community, human, coastal, research, and knowledge infrastructure to develop new marine crops locally. This model can then be applied to other areas and other types of seafood production through cultivation and collaboration. The transition from an exploitive to a collaborative cultivated system will change the way we treat the oceans and allow us to establish new relationships with the natural world, working within the abundance of healthy natural systems. The OKC model will encourage sound economic growth through the increase of small independent businesses, all working within a collaborative framework to produce high quality, safe, sustainable seafood and resources in an environmentally supportive manner. The new opportunities afforded by this model will contribute to our marine heritage by encouraging working waterfront investment and development, connect us to our local seafood and producers, and support local fishing families enabling them to continue to work on the water as generations before them have done. New opportunities will attract new talent, and encourage young, old, and underserved to be involved in these new natural resource economies. A collaborative of independent small businesses will allow for producers, processors, and product makers to maintain autonomy and avoid consolidation, takeover, and control from big business entities.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
The OKC seeks to engage the working waterfront in a new relationship— one of cultivation over exploitation. While our natural systems have long sustained and supported us, they are under unprecedented stress and now require our alliance, care, and support. Maine has an unparalleled coastline, with nearly pristine waters bordering the Gulf of Maine, one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world. A long history of wild fishery exploitation has reduced the once diverse fishing industries to mainly one species, the American Lobster. The Maine lobster industry is unique in all the world’s fisheries, as licenses cannot be sold or transferred, avoiding consolidation of the fleet. Each fishing license, therefore, represents a small, independent business in a model that supports fishing families all along the coast. While this economic system has allowed for multi-generational Mainers to remain in coastal communities despite increasing real estate values, the lobster industry faces major challenges with changing ocean climates. The lobster industry has already disappeared in southern New England, and lobster populations continue to migrate north with warming waters.
While the lobster industry is still experiencing record landings, the uncertainty about the resource grows every year. We have a window of opportunity now to build a new seaweed aquaculture industry before any kind of crisis strikes, which would severely affect Maine’s economy and landscape. Seaweed is a winter crop, growing opposite of the busy lobster fishing season. Horizontal submerged longlines are seeded in the fall, grow through the winter, and harvested in the spring. No inputs are required for the crop, just sunlight and clean seawater. The most valuable and versatile method for processing farmed seaweed is through dehydration, which creates a highly versatile, concentrated, shelf stable, nutrient-rich product that can then be milled and utilized in nearly every industry, including food, feed, beauty, fertilizers, and biomaterials.
While it is a major transformational shift to move from a wild hunter-gatherer model to one of cultivation, seaweed aquaculture has the potential to ease the cultural shift, but only if it can be economically and functionally viable. Currently, although interest in seaweed farming is very high, there is an overall lack of infrastructure, knowledge, experience, and organization around the effort, putting the farmed seaweed industry at risk before it has launched. The farmed seaweed industry in the US is in its infancy, with little to no economic relevance despite increasing press and public interest in the concept. The increasing popularity of seaweed as an ingredient, feed additive, food, and environmental savior is increasing global demand, which is increasing harvest pressure on wild beds. Wild seaweed stands are essential components of marine ecosystems worldwide, providing biogeochemical cycling, habitat, and food, and already under tremendous stress due to climate change and pollution. Despite tremendous resources invested into research institutions to study seaweed, little money or resources have been invested in building the essential nursery, processing, and marketing infrastructure required to meet increasing demand with a new cultivated crop. There is little to no experience to support a new seaweed industry in the US, and no generally accepted food or safety standards for farmed seaweed. This lack of knowledge presents a potential hazard, as newcomers without any kind of training or understanding of the product are bringing these new seafood crops to market, without basic understanding of food handling, food safety, hazards, or contamination concerns. With no established markets for domestic farmed seaweed, many new seaweed farmers are entering into supply agreements that make them captive to well-funded investor-led companies, creating exploitive relationships that devalue the farmer, who will continually be at the mercy of dock prices set by larger controlling processing entities. With no existing processing capacity or distribution channels, seaweed farmers are often leaving the business after growing for only one or two years.
These facts underlie our efforts to support seaweed farmers, create local processing capacity, and establish high standards for the industry based on shared values of fairness, transparency, sustainability, community, and independence. The more options seaweed farmers have to process and sell their crop the greater economic value and potential to transform what is essentially a niche industry to a relevant economic driver for our coastal communities. To this end, the Kelp Collaborative is creating training, networking, and market opportunities for farmers, processors, and buyers. This program assures that all participants are qualified by providing comprehensive training and support to produce high quality, organic seaweed crops to the same standards. In this way, many small businesses can aggregate products to supply larger markets, and scale through a collaborative network all along the coast. It also provides a ready market for both farmers and processors, both essential elements of a vibrant new seaweed farming industry.
The Organic Kelp Collaborative is focused on creating a network of organically certified seaweed farms, drying facilities and processors to scale the industry in a community-based, collaborative way. The Kelp Collaborative is open to new or existing seaweed farmers and anyone with an interest in drying or processing seaweed for additional income. MSE will assist farmers, dryers, and processors with required certifications, training, and facilitation services. Kelp Collaborative members run their own independent businesses but work together as a larger industry. Members may list offers to buy, sell, distribute, or process farmed seaweed, or offer seaweed related services. Organic certification, shared standards, and shared infrastructure will allow members to work together to grow, dry, process, aggregate, and sell high quality, high-value seaweeds. The Maine Seaweed Exchange works to develop standards, provide training and support, assist in organic certification and new farm and processing development, facilitate testing, advocate for the responsible development of seaweed aquaculture through community, legislative, and regulatory participation, and increase public awareness and appreciation of local seaweed crops through public events and educational opportunities and internships.
This vision will be realized with an investment in knowledge and infrastructure. While new farmers already have the required boats, gear, and access to the water, they require education, training, and support to obtain a lease, apply for organic certification, and plant, tend, and harvest each seaweed crop. With minimal investment, local processing capacity can be built using solar and renewable heat sources with solar greenhouses. These simple designs have a very low overhead, and can be built in almost any coastal community. Drying houses must also be organically certified, and processors trained to exact standards. Good farming and handling practices must be established and followed by every participant, as well as adherence to organic standards and principles. Once seaweed crops are dried, they can be milled in a central facility and aggregated for market.
Seaweed is one of the most nutrient dense, versatile resources on the planet. Rebalancing, restorative, and nourishing to ecosystems, soils, plants, people, and animals, farmed seaweed should be a major component in our lives today and in the future. Our vision is to see organically farmed seaweed on every table and in every diet, to replenish and restore mineral and vitamin imbalances, support immune systems, combat diabetes, reduce cardiovascular disease, discourage cancer, detoxify systems, improve gut health, restore skin health, assist with weight loss, reduce inflammation, and improve overall health and vitality. Seaweed can also improve overall health of animals, reducing the need for medication and antibiotics, and resulting in greater fertility, longer lives, healthier coats, hooves, meat, eggs, and dairy. Seaweed contributes to healthy soil, providing essential and trace minerals, hydrocolloid polysaccharides that bind water, and nutrient rich biomass to build humus. Seaweed fertilizers are essential for plants, providing a wide range of minerals and bioactive substances that increase growth and yield, improve disease and insect resistance, can act as a root stimulator, and feeds and increases microbial diversity. Seaweed extracts are also utilized in beekeeping to reduce disease and colony collapse, on golf courses to reduce chemical inputs, in vineyards to improve flavor, yield, and disease resistance, and in aquaculture feeds to improve health of fish and reduce reliance on wild harvested resources. The uses of seaweed are endless, but we must build a production system that is as good as the seaweed we grow in order to realize the full potential. This collaborative system approach seeks to build a scalable system based on cooperative, sustainable, and organic principles.
With a strong commitment to climate, ocean, and soil health, farmers in the OKC will commit 10-20% of their crops to soils and sediments. By committing a portion of farmed seaweed to soil health, we can help restore and build carbon rich healthy soils, improve plant and animal health, and increase resilience to floods and drought. By committing a portion of farmed seaweed to ocean sediments, we are assisting in the transport of carbon into deep ocean sediments, contributing to blue carbon sequestration. Cultivation models can also be extended to restore natural ecosystems, diversify farms, and restore water health. By building the right kind of system that is based on natural principles, we can scale to nourish all.