Predominantly grown on the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska - and even in parts of New England - kelp forests have been harvested on a large scale since World War I, when the vegetation was used as a source of potash to make gunpowder. During that time, the harvest was unregulated and destructive to the surrounding habitats. Nowadays, the harvest of kelp is more sustainable due to harvesters only removing the upper portion of the canopy of the algae. 

The evolution of harvesting kelp may have begun with gunpowder; however, the primary resource from kelp is algin, a product used as a gelling agent in foods, pharmaceuticals, waterproof and fireproofing fabrics, a component in fertilizers, and a healthy ingredient in food. In addition to this array of uses, kelp has been identified as a potential alternative energy source, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Studies on kelp forest ecosystems and the economics behind this sea plant show that it provides food and habitat for hundreds of fish species, invertebrates, and marine mammals. Additionally, healthy forests can protect coastlines and support other sustainable fisheries. Studies have shown that kelp generates a potential value of $465 to $562 billion annually across three critical ecosystem services:- fisheries production, nutrient cycling, and carbon removal.

Over the last 50 years though, climate change, poor water quality, and overfishing have damaged 40 to 60 percent of kelp forests. The impact has been significant, as more than 95 percent of these forests have been lost in one section of the coastline from southern Oregon to northern California due to high temperatures and over-harvest. As a result of the decline of the kelp forests, small-scale fisheries have been severely affected by a lack of food.

To help address these challenges, Senator Jeff Merkley (OR) created the Help Our Kelp Act, which will direct federal resources to support the vital recovery efforts of kelp. According to the Act, the drop in the red abalone fishery has closed local businesses and weakened the community. Overpopulated urchins have become a key predator of kelp, and continuous restoration efforts for the forests will include the removal of urchins. Senator Merkley emphasized the need for support to local state and federal partners.

The Help Our Kelp Act will serve to:

  • Establish a new NOAA grant program to fund conservation, restoration, and management projects focused on kelp forest ecosystems.
  • Focus on addressing the most significant relative regional declines, long-term ecological or socioeconomic resilience, large-scale kelp forest loss prevention, or are in focal recovery areas identified by Tribal, federal, or state management plans.
  • Authorize $5 million per year for FY 2024 through FY 2028.
  • Grant open to Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, tribal organizations, academic researchers, fishing industry, nonprofits, state agencies, and local government.

How can kelp forests benefit from the increase of kelp farms?

Most kelp forests today are located in marine protected areas and are studied by scientists. However, some fishermen have turned to sea farming to grow their kelp in the Pacific Northwest and New England to preserve and strengthen these resources. These manually planted kelp farms have become a way to substitute the decline of forests. Water must be clear so sunlight can reach the suspended ropes and start the growth process from kelp spores to mature kelp. Once the kelp has developed over a few months, it is harvested to supply a steady amount of kelp to the market. Farming can reduce the pressure on the wild kelp population and create economic opportunities for coastal communities. 

Kelp grows best in nutrient-rich, clear waters with temperatures between 42 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit; this makes the coast of Maine an excellent area for kelp to thrive. The season for kelp farming in Maine is from late winter into the spring months, which is typically the offseason for commercial fishermen up and down the coast.

Kelp farming is not just a way to benefit the income of these sea-farm fishermen but also helps improve ocean health. Steve Train, a commercial fisherman in Maine, has been kelp farming for 3 seasons in addition to decades of fishing for lobster and scallops. 

“It allows for a cash-positive flow at my slowest time of the year. It required much less of an investment than other options," Train said. “If we can fill the consumer need for kelp through our farms, the harvest of kelp forests may not even be necessary.”

Train sells his kelp through Atlantic Sea Farms. They partner with active maritime businesses, such as fishermen and aquaculturists, to help diversify their income and get them started with their farms. They provide them with free seed and technical assistance to get farm leases, set up their gear, and learn how to harvest, and a multi-year contract for free seed and guaranteed purchase of kelp. 

Atlantic Sea Farms works with the coastal communities to help keep fishermen working on the water. Kelp farms have many benefits for the ocean, including reducing ocean acidification and sustaining the product to the market without further harming kelp forests.  

A Science Daily study says farmed kelp's water-filtering abilities could help reduce marine pollution in coastal areas. “Carbon sequestration by kelp has received the most attention from scientists. However, kelp is much better at mitigating excessive amounts of nitrogen than carbon.” Shared Schery Umanzor, lead author of the study.

Though growing kelp in these over polluted waters shouldn’t be used for food, it can create a tool for cleaning coastal areas affected by urban sewage, domestic water runoffs, or fisheries waste disposal. Kelp farming has also become an emerging industry within the coast of Maine's clean waters to bring kelp food products to consumers.

Though it will take time to rebirth kelp forests, many sea farms up and down the coasts can help provide kelp to the market without harming ecosystems that provide a habitat for other sea life. Kelp farming can be a great way to sustain your income in the offseason of fisheries and provide food for your family, the local coastal communities, and beyond. 

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Carli is a Content Specialist for National Fisherman. She comes from a fourth-generation fishing family off the coast of Maine. Her background consists of growing her own business within the marine community. She resides on one of the islands off the coast of Maine while also supporting the lobster community she grew up in.

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