December 31, 2012

Bounty of sea grows in Maine waves

Maine's flourishing seaweed industry looks to expand with new products such as energy bars and lip balm.

By Ann S. Kim
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH - In the waning days of his commercial fishing career, when Tom Roth needed to justify his purchase of another boat, he decided to harvest rockweed, which lobster businesses use for packing.

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VitaminSea co-owner Tom Roth collects dulse, a type of edible seaweed, during low tide on Casco Bay. Roth says his company comes up with ideas for new products by “messing around” and seeing how things taste.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Paul Tarkleson and Tom Roth of VitaminSea head home after collecting dulse during a low tide in Casco Bay.

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It was his first step into Maine's growing seaweed industry.

Six years later, Roth and his wife, Kelly, preside over an expanding business. VitaminSea's offerings now include energy bars studded with blueberries, dark chocolate and kelp, supplements for animals, a seasoning mix, and sea vegetables like alaria, konbu and dulse.

"This plant, there's so much you can do with it if you just keep an open mind," Tom Roth said.

The company contracted with a bakery recently to keep up with demand for its SeaCrunch bars, and picked up a West Coast distributor.

And it's researching other products, including a lip balm made with kelp, and looking to expand its facility off Pine Point Road.

VitaminSea harvests edible seaweeds on the Maine coast and dries them in a leased space on Snow Canning Road, near the Scarborough Marsh. It plans to build a simple greenhouse in its gravel parking lot so it can dry more seaweed faster than it can indoors.

It's not clear just how large Maine's seaweed industry is. The Maine Seaweed Council hopes to hire someone to study the industry and put a value on it, said Shep Erhart, the trade group's president and the founder of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Franklin.

When Erhart got started 40 years ago, he said, the seaweed drying on his clothesline was such a novelty that passing drivers would rubber-neck.

He said his business is now the largest employer in the Hancock County town. The company has 18 year-round employees and works with 40 to 50 harvesters who are independent contractors.

"Things have changed. Now we just have to keep the lid on the pot and make sure it doesn't get out of control," Erhart said.

Seaweed landings totaled 15.3 million pounds in 2011, according to preliminary data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. That was up from 12.9 million pounds the previous year.

Rockweed accounts for an estimated 90 percent of that, with all other species combined making up the rest, said Linda Mercer, director of the department's Bureau of Marine Science.

In addition to packing material, rockweed is turned into fertilizers, soil conditioners, animal food and supplements.

The value of the 2011 landings, unprocessed, was estimated at $421,720. Erhart said that figure doesn't fully reflect the growing number of added-value products in the market.

The Maine Seaweed Council and the Department of Marine Resources are in the early stages of a multi-species seaweed management plan. Mercer said it is part of a larger effort by the department to develop management plans for all species.

A management plan already exists for Cobscook Bay, where seaweed became a hot issue after one of the world's largest processing companies, Acadian Seaplants of Nova Scotia, began advertising for harvesters in 2000.

The plan divides the area into sectors, limits landings to 17 percent of the harvestable biomass and requires harvesters to submit plans to the state.

Erhart expects that seaweed aquaculture will play a larger role in complementing the wild harvest.

Ocean Approved was the first company in Maine to farm its own seaweed. Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson started the kelp-farming company in 2006, and now operate three farms in Casco Bay and one in the Blue Hill Salt Pond. The kelp is sold frozen for use in slaw, salad and noodles.

The company is now researching kelp seed with a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The laboratory phase is winding down, and the company will create a manual that will be available to anyone, Dobbins said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The kelp farming company Ocean Approved raises kelp in indoor aquariums from spores to harvestable size.


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