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Kelp wanted: Seaweed farms expand in Maine's Casco Bay

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Kelp wanted: Seaweed farms expand in Maine's Casco Bay

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Tollef Olson and Paul Dobbins are passionate about seaweed.

Pointing to a blown-up photo of a microscopic sugar kelp seedling, Dobbins calls it their first baby.

Olson and Dobbins own Ocean Approved, a kelp farming operation with several aquaculture projects off the coast of Maine. They've proposed two more farms, one near the sandbar between Little Chebeague and Chebeague islands, and the other near Jewel Island.

The pair found out last week they received a $300,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Small Business Innovative Research program to continue their research to develop, seed and cultivate kelp.

"It's a highly competitive grant," Dobbins said.

Ocean Approved started in 2006 and was initially associated with Bang Island Mussels. The mussel farm has since been sold, and it's just kelp for Olson and Dobbins now. Their kelp farm was the first in the United States.

"Both of us spent time in Asia and realized there was a significant population eating seaweed," Dobbins said.

Olson, who started his career as a restaurateur, said he wanted to grow kelp in Maine for years, but assumed there wasn't a market. But now, he said, people are looking for sustainable food grown locally, which is exactly what their kelp farm aims to provide.

"We call it our 'virtuous vegetable,'" Olson said.

They call it that so often, they trademarked the phrase.

Dobbins said the three varieties of kelp they grow are all native to Maine. They grow in the open ocean and filter nitrogen and phosphorus – often considered pollutants – out of the water.

The plants feed entirely on nutrients from the ocean and require no additional food. Dobbins said the final product has more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more fiber than brown rice.

In addition to its positive health affects, Dobbins said kelp is a perfect aquaculture product for Maine because its prime growing season is the winter – opposite the lobster industry.

Dobbins said Ocean Approved has no intention of patenting its kelp-growing technology, which is the first of its kind in the country.

"Part of our goal is to create an industry," he said. "We want this to take off."

They're hoping lobstermen will grow kelp in their offseason, providing them a way to make money in the winter. Ocean Approved would then become a distributor of kelp products.

The company's products, including pickled kelp, frozen kelp noodles and kelp slaw, are now available at Whole Foods Market and several smaller stores and markets in southern Maine. They have recipes and suggestions on their website, oceanapproved.com.

Dobbins and Olson said the way kelp is grown, suspended 7 feet below the surface, means the buoys can be treated in the same way as lobster buoys: boats can travel right over them and not worry about tangling propellers in a field of kelp.

In a trip out to the location, the Ocean Approved boat went between buoys many times without catching.

Anyone concerned about the location or the project can contact the Department of Marine Resources. The application for both the Cheabeague and Jewel locations are available on the DMR's website, maine.gov/dmr.

Diantha Robinson, the aquaculture hearing officer for the Maine DMR, said she has received a couple letters from the public, but that they were requests for more information about the projects, rather than protests.

Dobbins and Olson did a public presentation on Chebeague Island on Sept. 18 in response to the letters.

Robinson said the DMR is sending a biologist to the sites to review the projects. The biologist will put together a report, which will be mailed to everyone on the DMR's notification list. After that, the DMR will rule on whether to grant the experimental lease, which will last for three years and cannot be renewed.

Dobbins said the kelp farm they currently maintain near Little Chebeague is in a different ocean current than the Jewel and Chebeague locations.

"Hopefully at the end of the project we will have characterized what an optimum site looks like," he said. "This will help us better pick a 10-year site that will produce optimum yields, lowering the cost and allowing for the smallest possible site."

Dobbins and Olson encouraged anyone with concerns about the buoys or the location of the farm to contact them directly. They've taken several people out to the existing farm, and to the new locations, and Dobbins said that has assuaged their concerns about navigation and fishing interference.

They can be reached at 409-6485 or pdobbins@oceanapproved.com.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.