USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced Jan. 23 that it is extending funding from its Small Business Innovation Research Program to Maine-based seaweed producer Springtide to expand U.S. seaweed cultivation.
With most seaweed sold in the country imported, the affiliation could boost the U.S. seaweed market and kickstart an expansion of the promising industry.
“SBIR support enables businesses to pursue novel and innovative approaches to issues that limit the success of their industries in ways that benefit their own operations, their region and the country as a whole,” said Tim Sullivan, a NIFA National Program Leader working with aquaculture. “The SBIR awards to Springtide Seaweed is a fantastic example of this, providing much-needed support to develop solutions that enable the expansion and development of seaweed aquaculture in ways that improve the profitability and viability of this emerging domestic industry.”
There’s potential for growth of seaweed aquaculture in the U.S., but the market is hampered by limited production, with just a small number of farms in the country that each cultivate one or two species of kelp, NIFA said.
Possible aquaculture products could include dulse (Palmaria palmata) and nori (Porphyra spp.), which Springtide founder Sarah Redmond characterized as “nutritious and valuable.”
Nori is widely cultivated in Asia, but its cultivation system is not easily transplanted to the US, she added.
Meanwhile, dulse is native to both sides of the Atlantic, but “no one has figured out how to cultivate dulse on a commercial scale on a farm,” Redmond said, explaining that reliable seed supplies and a lack of understanding of cultivation practices has constrained commercialization.
Nori and dulse commercialization
The partnership with NIFA could help change that.
Redmond acknowledged that her project is ambitious, and suggested that the aquaculture grant will help Springtide take steps to commercialize nori and dulse at the same time.
The project’s first phase included development of “critical nursery technologies and techniques” to reliably produce both dulse and nori seed.
“Reliable sources of clean seed are necessary to support the development of a new seaweed farming industry for the North Atlantic,” Redmond said.
The first phase focused on bottlenecks in nursery production, which included testing of a new approach for seawater sterilization, developing seedstock to aid in reliable spore production and nori and dulse seed production for open farm cultivation.
The second phase includes testing and refining modular nursery systems for production of red seaweed seeds, as well as a large-scale field trial of six cultivation substrates. Data was collected for both nursery and farm stages regarding seeding density, growth, timing, biofouling and yield. Nori and dulse seeding for additional test substrates and forms is ongoing.
Next, Springtide will test various net designs and refine cage designs and substrate options, as well as create sustainable business strategies “to enhance the success of other new seaweed aquaculture firms.”
Sustainable economic development
According to Redmond, the development of new seaweed cultivation could fuel new business in sustainable economic development throughout the country, particularly in rural coastal locales.
“Economically viable seaweed farming can offer opportunity for diversification to traditional fishermen, oyster, mussel and fish farmers, and encourage more women farmers,” she said.
But Springtide’s main focus is seaweed, which it grows in Maine’s Frenchman Bay, about one hour southeast of Bangor.
“Sustainably farmed seaweed from Maine is arguably the finest seaweed in the world,” per Springtide’s website.
Springtide has the largest organic seaweed farm in North America, and grows more than four seaweed varieties including sugar kelp, skinny kelp, alaria and dulse.
Other Maine-based seaweed businesses, Atlantic Sea Farms and Ocean’s Balance, are working to promote the health benefits of seaweed, particularly the nutritional value of fresh kelp and the economic benefits for lobster farmer parteners.