Gov. Janet Mills poses with the crew from Atlantic Sea Farms, a Saco company that is expanding sales of its Maine-farmed sea kelp products to include the retail market, on a recent November day.

SACO — When Briana Warner took over as CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms in 2018, the kelp crop, which had produced 40,000 pounds the previous year, climbed to 240,000 pounds.

“This year, it will be 600,000 pounds,” Warner told Gov. Janet Mills, who toured the Industrial Park Road facility in late November.

Atlantic Sea Farms, the brand name for Ocean Approved, Inc., which was formed in 2009, has introduced farmed sea kelp to household markets, in the form of seafood salad, sea-chi, which is a sort of kimchi, sea-beet kraut, ready-cut frozen kelp and kelp cubes, which are used in smoothies.

The kelp is farmed in waters off Maine, sometimes by lobster fishermen, sometimes by fishers of other species, or to augment work in another seasonal industry. Atlantic Sea Farms supplies the kelp seed, the fishermen grow it in the ocean and sell it to the company, where it is processed and packaged for the wholesale — and now — retail markets.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills and Atlantic Sea Farms CEO Briana Warner discuss products made from the farmed sea kelp the company processes in its facility in the Saco Industrial Park.  Atlantic Sea Farms works with a number of Maine fishermen who grow the sea kelp with seed from the company. Tammy Wells Photo

On the day Mills visited, Stewart Hunt and David Leith were at Atlantic Sea Farms to pick up their kelp seed, grown from spores at the facility. The men own Casco Bay Mooring and Kelp, said Hunt. Kelp grows best in winter and so is farmed from November to April. For Hunt and Leith, it is a spin off from their mooring business, which operates the rest of the year.

They’ll grow 10,000 pounds of kelp off Yarmouth, between Chebeague and Little John islands this season, Hunt said.

Among the others growing kelp for Atlantic Sea Farms are the owners of Bangs Island Mussels; the company’s mollusks are farmed in Casco Bay.

Matt Moretti, owner of Bangs Island Mussels, said the company grew 80,000 pounds of kelp for Atlantic Sea Farms in 2019.

“We were happy to bring on kelp,” he said.

Warner is happy to have all of the growers — those in Casco Bay and others, off St. George — and hopes to expand the company’s reach into downeast Maine.

And, she said, a project with Bangs Island Mussels showed that with kelp being grown around the mussel rafts, there was an increase in mussel shell strength.

Kelp diversifies the marine economy and with its calcium and potassium content, it is “good for you,” Warner said. She pointed out that kelp is also a source of iodine, a mineral the body needs to make thyroid hormones, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Warner came to Atlantic Sea Farms through her involvement with the Rockland-based Island Institute, where she was economic development director for nearly four years. She previously owned a pie company in Portland for a time, after working in various assignments over eight years as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.

Until lately, Atlantic Sea Farms kelp products has been available only in restaurants, schools and smoothie shops. The expansion into the retail market is bearing fruit. Jesse Baines, sales and marketing company director, said Atlantic Sea Farms products have been picked up by the meal delivery service Daily Harvest, are available at various Whole Foods locations in New England, and through a number of natural food stores and coops, as well as locations like Harbor Fish on Customs House Wharf in Portland, or online at the company website: atlanticseafarms.com.

The four-person staff includes kelp supply director James Crimp and operations manager Jen Manoogian, along with Warner and Baines. As well, the company employs five workers who process the kelp full-time during the season.

Atlantic Sea Farms was among a couple of marine-related stops Mills made on her visit to Saco with Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson.

Farming and harvesting kelp relieves pressure on farming from wild kelp beds, diversifies sources of income for many of the fishermen, and allows Atlantic Sea Farms to provide a sustainable, healthy and local kelp alternative to much of the dry, processed seaweed product imported from Asia, Mills said.

She applauded the company’s partnership with Maine fishermen.

“Atlantic Sea Farms is a pioneering company, demonstrating how our state can diversify its economy, support good-paying jobs, and mitigate the impacts of climate change to protect our environment,” Mills said. “Innovation like we saw at Atlantic Sea Farms will help us strengthen and expand our economy and attract people to live and work in Maine.”

“Today we were able to see innovation at its best,” said Johnson.

Following their visit to Atlantic Sea Farm, Mills and Johnson visited Ready Seafood in Saco, which also has a location in Portland.

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