In Maine, sustainability showdown scraps seaweed shindig

AP News
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Posted: Jun 26, 2016 7:15 AM

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The Maine Seaweed Festival is a dream day for New England's natural food lovers, who spend the day munching on seaweed granola and schmoozing with kelp harvesters at a daylong party astride sun-splashed Casco Bay.

But this year, it's not happening, and a rift between the event's organizers and some seaweed harvesters is the reason why. The planners of the popular festival, located in the country's biggest seaweed state, said they are canceling the event this year over concerns about lack of sustainability.

Organizer Hillary Krapf, who runs a seaweed products and education company called Moon And Tide, said Maine's seaweed industry has been besieged by a "Gold Rush mentality" that threatens sustainability as seaweed grows in popularity. New players are getting involved in Maine seaweed farming before there is anywhere near the infrastructure needed to sustainably process and sell it, she said.

"I would like to see more regulation and accountability. We can feel good about what we are promoting and make sure we are doing right by the ocean and its resources," she said.

Maine overtook California as the country's largest producer of seaweed about a decade ago. The Maine Seaweed Festival, held in South Portland, has sprung up along with the growth as an annual chance for the state's seaweed producers to show off products and celebrate all things related to sea vegetables.

The seaweed festival started in 2014 and doubled in attendance to about 3,000 last year. The rise in attendance coincides with growth in Maine's seaweed industry, which quadrupled its harvest from 2004 to 2014.

Krapf declined to single out companies in the seaweed industry that she believes are threatening the sustainability of the crop, which is used to make snacks, soap, dog food, nutritional supplements and many other products. The number of wild-seaweed harvesters in the state has held steady at around 150 to 170 for the last few years, and there are a handful of aquaculture seaweed farmers.

Paul Dobbins, who heads a Portland seaweed products company called Ocean Approved, said there are about 20 applications in the pipeline to open new seaweed farms. His company uses about half wild and half farmed, and it plans to move to 100 percent farmed.

Dobbins disagreed that Maine's seaweed industry has a sustainability problem, but added that a lot of new faces are getting into the business.

"We see the market expanding dramatically for domestic seaweed," Dobbins said. "Almost all seaweed in the U.S. is imported, and consumers are looking for a product from waters they can trust."

But Shep Erhart, president of the Maine Seaweed Council and founder of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, doesn't paint so rosy of a picture. He said the state is experiencing a "seaweed bandwagon," and this is a good time for the festival to take a year off.

"We can't meet demand without overdoing it," Erhart said. "We want to make sure we can meet this demand that Mother Nature is supplying us. We need to step back and slow down a bit."