PORTLAND — A company in the not-yet-competitive domestic kelp farming industry has received approval for an experimental aquaculture lease in Casco Bay.
Ocean Approved LLC, which owners say created the first kelp farm in America in 2009, also in Casco Bay, received approval Jan. 24 from the Department of Marine Resources for a three-year lease for 3.03 acres off of Jewell Island.
Ocean Approved co-owner Paul Dobbins said the company is still awaiting approval for a second site of the same size off Chebeague Island.
Dobbins and his partner, Tollef Olson, plan to use the sites as underwater laboratories, experimenting with different growing conditions to find the ideal setting for a longer-term kelp farm. They grow three varieties of kelp, each native to Casco Bay.
The approved site off of Jewell Island is a high-energy zone, Dobbins said, with significant tidal movement. The Chebeague Island site is a low-energy site, he said.
“These two zones are where we’ll go to make our mistakes and our success,” Dobbins said. “We still have some research to do.”
“When we have a really good handle on a lease site that will be the smallest area with the highest yield, then we’ll have the data to choose a 10-year lease site,” he added.
The company sells most of their kelp to local markets, and ships a small amount to Southern California, Dobbins said. It hopes to expand sales in the latter half of this year, he said, and eventually may move into exporting kelp to foreign markets.
For now, though, the U.S. imports between $400 million and $900 million of kelp a year, much of it from South Korea, Dobbins said. “We have a long run way in front of us,” he said.
Diantha Robinson, the DMR aquaculture hearings officer, said a decision has been drafted on the company’s second application, and Dobbins was optimistic the Chebeague Island site would be approved.
“We would hope that we demonstrated to the state that we met the criteria,” he said.
Both the company and the state must sign the lease before Ocean Approved can lay out its kelp farming equipment, which consists of lines strung between buoys 7 feet below the ocean’s surface. The company must also take out a $5,000 bond and get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for aquaculture equipment, Dobbins said.