If you lift the longlines of just about any seaweed farm in Maine, you’ll likely see the long blades of kelp or another member of the brown seaweed family. Now a Gouldsboro organic seaweed farmer wants to add a dash of red.
Sarah Redmond, the owner of Springtide Seaweed in Frenchman Bay, has set out to develop a new method of farming dulse and nori, two high-value and in-demand red seaweeds. Both have a long history of wild harvest in Maine but are nearly non-existent on seafarms across the country.
The two plants can fetch prices twice as high as their brown seaweed counterparts, giving Redmond and others hope that cultivating them could bring an economic boost to the growing industry.
“People in the North Atlantic have been using and eating these seaweeds forever and there’s tremendous interest in learning a farming system for these plants,” she said last week. “I think there’s enormous potential.”
Red seaweeds are cultivated on a massive scale in Asia, but haven’t caught on in the U.S. In the 1990s, a Maine farm grew nori in Cobscook Bay, but eventually folded. There is a West Coast operation that grows red seaweed in tanks, Redmond said, but commercial scale farms in the U.S. waters have remained elusive.
One of the reasons the two seaweeds have proven difficult is farming them requires a lot more attention and effort than kelp, said Chris Davis, the head of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center.
In Japan, Korea and China, large scale nori farms grow the seaweed on extensive net systems that require regular drying. That would be hard to pull off in Maine because of the extreme winter weather and potential to get tangled in rockweed.
They’re also prone to biofouling — the act of microorganisms attaching themselves to the seaweed — potentially ruining the plant.
“They’re extremely difficult to work with,” he said. “You can’t just let (the seaweed) attach to something and walk away like you can with the brown seaweed.”
Redmond, who has been in aquaculture for more than a decade and grows other seaweeds on her farm in Frenchman Bay, started this new work in September with the help of a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Her first crop of dulse, a salty, short-leaf variety of seaweed that’s said to taste like bacon when fried, is expected to be harvested soon. She’s pleased with the progress it’s made so far and hopes that it can translate over to nori, a seaweed that’s commonly made into sheets to wrap up sushi rolls and onigiri.
Her efforts were applauded by Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, who thought the research could afford farmers the chance to diversify their ocean plots and help move the sector forward.
“We want to have options, see what the markets are calling for and have the ability to grow different crops on different sites,” he said.
The project is still in the early stages and Redmond expects it will take time to figure out the best cultivation methods, growth cycles and seed production for the new crops.
“This is all new and we’ve never done it before,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn from the natural world to figure out how it all works.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled the type of seaweed shown in the featured photo. It is kelp.