Atlantic Sea Farms of Saco started out growing seaweed, but is now trying to grow a Maine industry.

The company began in 2009 as commercial seaweed farming operation called Ocean Approved. It began to expand its mission in 2018, later changing its name to reflect that, and now partners with about two dozen fishermen and women up and down the Maine coast. The fishermen grow the seaweed in their offseasons, then sell it to Atlantic Sea Farms, which produces kelp-based products for sale online, in Whole Foods and other stores, and for use by several health-focused casual restaurant chains.

The hope, says Atlantic Sea Farms CEO Briana Warner, is that kelp farming can become a viable supplemental income for Maine fishermen. Gov. Janet Mills praised the company last fall during a tour of its facility, saying that it shows “how our state can diversify its economy, support good-paying jobs and mitigate the impacts of climate change to protect our environment.”

“I applaud the company for their creativity and their partnerships with local fishermen, and I look forward to their continued success in the years to come,” Mills said in a statement posted on the governor’s office website.

Atlantic Sea Farms gives fishermen free kelp seedlings from its own nursery. The fishermen lease space on the water and grow the kelp on underwater lines that are moored to the sea floor, Warner said. The company then buys the mature kelp, which it uses to make easy-to use products for consumers who are probably not used to cooking with seaweed, including ready-cut kelp for salads and pastas and other dishes; kelp cubes for soups, sauces and smoothies; kelp-based kimchi; kelp-based sauerkraut; and fermented seaweed salad.

The crew of Atlantic Sea Farms at Camp Ellis in Saco. From left, Brandon Ruminski, logistics and procurement coordinator; Jesse Baines, sales and marketing director; Bri Warner, CEO; James Crimp, supply director; and Pete Rahn, operations manager. Atlantic Sea Farms is the winner of the Seaweed Supplier Award from the 2020 Source Sustainability Awards. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The company’s mission and products have been written up in the national media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, and have been featured on the PBS show “TasteMakers.” Its products are used by the restaurant chains B.good and Sweetgreen.

The kelp grows in winter, Warner said. Planting is done between October and December, and the seaweed is harvested from April into June. For many lobstermen, raising kelp helps them make money in their slower times of year, Warner said. It’s especially well-suited as a sideline because it requires less money to get started farming kelp than other kinds of aquaculture do, Warner said. From an environmental perspective, it requires no fertilizer or fresh water or anything else added to the ocean where it grows.

This year, Atlantic Sea Farms expects a harvest of some 600,000 pounds of rope-grown kelp, up substantially from 250,000 pounds in 2019. The harvest could be especially critical this year, Atlantic Sea Farms says, helping provide economic stability for fishermen in the face of falling lobster prices caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We really want to help fishermen diversify their income,” Warner said. “Right now they are so dependent on lobster.”

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