Help from kelp: how Maine lobstermen are holding back the tide of warming oceans

With climate change threatening their livelihoods, seafarers are finding salvation in seaweed - and it's good news for diabetics

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Lobstermen and fishermen in the US state of Maine are looking to seaweed to future-proof their livelihoods against the impacts of climate change.

Aquaculture is growing exponentially in Maine as the fishing industry grapples with warming oceans affecting what has been the economic bedrock of the north-eastern US for centuries.

As global warming continues to wreak havoc on the world's oceans and as overfishing pushes some marine species to the brink of extinction, fishermen in Maine and elsewhere are having to find ways to supplement their income.

Kelp - a nutrient-rich variety of seaweed whose health benefits include vanadium, a mineral that is believed to help people manage diabetes - could just be their saving grace.

The problem

The Gulf of Maine is warming at 0.9°C a year, faster than 96 per cent of the world’s oceans.

The worst affected by this phenomenon are shrimp fishermen, whose industry, once worth $16 million a year, is in terminal decline as stocks plummet.

The warming of the ocean — which not only makes it harder for shrimp to spawn but also provides ideal conditions for their main predator, the longfin squid — has dealt a devastating blow to the industry.

There has not been a northern shrimp fishing season in the Gulf of Maine since 2013 and a moratorium was placed on the fishery after the population collapsed. Hopes that it could reopen were dashed after a recent survey showed that stocks were at their lowest level in four decades.

Now alarm bells are beginning to sound for the lobster industry, which brings in $725m a year and provides work to 4,000 lobstermen and another 35,000 people on the waterfront.

Alarm bells are beginning to sound for the Maine lobster industry, which brings in $725 million a year. AP

In the short term, the temperature rise has been good news for Maine, with more lobsters migrating north from Cape Cod, leading to an abundant supply in northern New England.

But in the long term, there is a major question mark over stocks, a study by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute said.

“In the Gulf of Maine, the lobster fishery is vulnerable to future temperature increases,” the study found.

“The researchers’ population projections suggest that lobster productivity will decrease as temperatures continue to warm, but continued conservation efforts can mitigate the impacts of future warming.”

Maine’s lobstermen are also facing curbs on the equipment they are allowed to use and where they can fish because of the threat to endangered right whales.

The green solution

Enter kelp, a plant that is both native to the area and a rising star on the health food scene.

“Eight years ago, we produced 50,000 pounds [about 22,700 kilograms] of kelp. Last year it was one million pounds [about 45,000kg],” said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

“It’s a source of supplemental income for fishermen. They like to rotate, so they are not dependent on one fishery, but licences are becoming more difficult to come by.”

Kelp is a plant that is both native to the area and a rising star on the health food scene. AFP

There are now more than 30 kelp farmers in Maine, of whom the overwhelming majority are former lobstermen.

“Fishermen have traditionally accessed other fisheries in addition to lobster, depending on the availability of different species,” Dr Kathy Mills, a research scientist at the institute, told The National.

“As we see some fisheries — such as northern shrimp — disappear with warming temperatures and associated ecosystem changes, fishermen are considering the potential of new opportunities, such as growing kelp, which might offset some of these impacts.”

And it is not only lobstermen who are turning to kelp.

Matthew Moretti, a marine scientist, started growing mussels in Casco Bay 20 years ago and added kelp to his business a decade ago.

His small business, operating on the Portland seafront, uses high-tech processing equipment imported from Europe.

“Recently, the kelp industry has grown significantly in Maine, but it's still quite tiny,” he said.

“The United States lags far behind the rest of the world.

“Farming the ocean is one of the most difficult endeavours you can really take on.”

The kelp calendar starts in the autumn, when seeded, 300-metre-long horizontal ropes are dropped into the Gulf of Maine and held in place by surface moorings leased from the state.

The plant is grown over the winter and harvested in the spring.

A farmer with about 4,000 metres of rope can earn as much as $57,000 from the crop, which is sold to Atlantic Sea Farms, the company that created America’s first commercially viable seaweed farm back in 2009.

Now run by an all-female team, it operates from a 2,500-square-metre processing facility in Biddeford, a few kilometres south of Portland.

Kelp farmer Matthew Moretti, chief executive of Wild Ocean Aquaculture, on the waterfront in Portland, Maine. Photo: David Millward

Kelp farmers have done well, said Jesse Bains, the company’s marketing officer. A crop that was seen as a fallback is becoming hugely lucrative, with one farmer earning more than $100,000 a year from kelp.

“We want to make sure that people who work on the waterfront can diversify, whether it is mussel farmers or lobstermen,” Ms Bains added.

“Lobstermen are naturally good kelp farmers because they spend time on the ocean.

“As we all face down climate change and flail around wondering what to do, you have this community of lobstermen putting their heads down and getting to work.

“Kelp is a solution. It’s only in the last few years Maine has only had one species. The cod has gone, the shrimp has gone. It is an insurance policy.”

In global terms, the Maine kelp industry is something of a minnow, with 98 per cent of edible seaweed being grown in Asia.

But, according to Atlantic Sea Farms, the Asian product sold in the US is hardly in prime condition, arriving rehydrated or even dyed.

“We have several products we sell in grocery stores across the country,” Ms Bains said.

“There is seaweed salad, kraut and kimchi, which people can put on anything.

“We also make smoothie cubes out of kelp for the health benefits.

“The ultimate goal is to make it easy to eat at home.”

Updated: September 02, 2022, 6:00 PM