Notes from the Field by Shep Erhart, MCSV founder and president
Last week I was part of another sea change for Maine Coast Sea Vegetables: our first organic certification inspection for the Sorrento sea farm, and the first organic certification of aquacultured seaweed in the United States, to my knowledge. We are fortunate that MOFGA (the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) pioneered standards for certifying farmed Maine macroalgae, with the blessing of the USDA’s National Organic Program. Organic (land) farmers need their organic seaweed for healthy plants and animals, and so do we want the same for you! But why should you care if your kelp is certified organic?
First, with certified organic seaweed aquaculture, no artificial fertilizer is used at any growth stage. From the nursery–as the spores differentiate into male and female, germinate, and form the minuscule plants (called gametophytes at this stage) that you see in the photo on the right–to the open water.
Sarah Redmond, in charge of the seaweed nursery at the nearby Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, admits that the tiny kelp gametophytes take longer to mature on the twine, but once they are out on the farm, their holdfasts will grab onto the green rope she is holding in the photo below and grow like gangbusters this winter.
Secondly, you probably didn’t know that in conventional seaweed farming, artificial fertilizers are often used not only in the nursery but also in grow-out areas. They tie little mesh bags of fertilizer pellets to the lines or nets to enrich the water around the plants. Great for growing plants big and fast, but not so great for the delicate seawater balance that affects all other marine life forms. In China I have seen entire bay systems covered with nori nets. Impressive, but how is this monoculture with chemical inputs affecting everything else in that bay?
Although we have a thirty-five-acre site in Sorrento, it’s a very small part of Frenchman Bay, and we share it with a local fisherman who plans to grow mussels alongside our seaweed someday. The two species have complementary nutrient needs and should thrive together. In fact, Mainers and others are already farming a variety of species together, including seaweeds, shellfish, and sometimes finfish, in systems that produce more food, and less waste. This type of growing is also called Integrated Multi-trophic Aquaculture.
Lastly, we are taking this step of organic certification (as we have for all of our other, wild-harvested products) because it keeps us on our toes, and makes everyone more aware of the consequences of everything we put into the environment and into the food stream. When we harvest, we’ll make sure the containers used to collect and transport the seaweed are clean, using ecologically sound methods (not with Mr. Clean!), the fuel running the outboard motor in the harvesting boats is isolated, the drying system on land is non-polluting and the final packaging is food grade. All the details that add up to making a difference, we trust. Let’s hope those baby plants grow up knowing they are loved!
Editor’s note: MCSV has been working for several years on integrating farmed seaweed with the wild-harvested plants that we continue to treasure and rely on. For more on our seaweed aquaculture efforts, see these previous posts: