Maine’s lobstermen embody an iconic industry that for many defines the lifestyle on the coast of Maine. But they have struggles, too — bait, right whales and warming waters are the top factors in a changing fishery.
"We have no idea what is going to happen with this industry. What we do know is it's really vulnerable," said Briana Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms.
For 10 years, the state's defining fishery has actively pursued solutions to right whale interactions by modifying gear. And some lobstermen are finding a little fishery flexibility with an off-season crop — kelp.
"Bait prices are rising, people are having to go further offshore," Warner said. "We're looking to find ways to help capitalize on people's strengths."
Warner started working with Maine's coastal communities as the senior community development officer for the Island Institute, based in Rockland. She left the institute last summer to take over as CEO of what was then Ocean Approved — rebranded as Atlantic Sea Farms.
At the Island Institute, Warner worked with a program that provided grant funds to help fishermen launch supplemental aquaculture leases for oysters, mussels and kelp. James Crimp ran the program, and he joined Warner as Atlantic Sea Farms' supply chain manager.
Most of the company's partners are fishermen.
The advantage lobstermen have right now is that their fishery is still in an upswing, following record landings for several years' running, keeping above 110 million pounds last year with strong prices.
"Right now people have capital," Warner said. "Seaweed is a low capital barrier to entry. Most fishermen make money in the first year — they already have the boat."
Moreover, fishermen have the know-how. They understand the ocean environment. In aquaculture start-ups, fishermen have an inherent advantage.
"We've seen people struggle year after year after year if they're not fishermen," Warner said. "I've never seen fishermen struggle with seaweed farming. Their aptitude is significant."
The kelp season is also complementary to peak lobstering season — planting in the fall and harvesting in the spring — which makes it all the more appealing for Maine's largest commercial fishing fleet. Lobstermen also bring critical community knowledge when it comes to finding locations for siting kelp grow-out. Though most kelp gear is out of the water by June, it's still important to be respectful of your neighbors' saltwater territory.
"They know where not to put their farm because they know the people who fish there," Warner said. "They know the people around them, and they respect people's territory."
The trade-off in growing kelp is that it's not as easy to offload as oysters and mussels, which can easily be sold locally and immediately.
"If you're going to make money from a [kelp] farm," Warner said, "there needs to be the ability to process it."
That's where companies like Atlantic Sea Farms come in. Warner says her company produces seaweed spores — incubating them for 30 days to prepare them for "planting" by the company's farming partners up and down the Maine coast.
"We help people with lease applications, mooring and line setups," Warner said. "People pick it up pretty easily. They know more about the water than any of us do."
The world's first Seaweed Week will take place in Maine April 26-May 4 in celebration of the spring kelp harvest. That's just in time for the company's lobstermen-kelp farmers to be ready for trap hauling ahead of Memorial Day Weekend. Stay tuned here for weekly updates on Maine's seaweed scene and highlights from Seaweed Week.
Why Seaweed Matters is the first of a series of events on the Blue Economy hosted by the New England Ocean Cluster with collaboration from Startup Maine and sponsored by the Maine Center for Graduate and Professional Studies.