WHEN THINKING ABOUT Maine, lobster almost invariably comes to mind. The state conjures up scenes of fishermen hauling in nets along the foggy coast, of steaming red lobsters plated with a side of butter set on checkered red tablecloths, the family ready to dig in. The waterfront tourists flock to has been preserved not because it’s charming but because it’s still in use. Maine has more coastline than California, and in many places, lobster fishing is one of the only jobs around. Families here have fished lobster for generations and hope to do so for years to come.
But there are dangers in relying on a single industry, especially as the climate warms. Several years ago, former diplomat Briana Warner started raising concerns. She had come from the U.S. Foreign Service, where she worked in economic development in Western and Central Africa. Her husband was a Mainer, and when they moved back to the state to be closer to family, she decided to put her economic development expertise to work at home.
Warner was used to the Foreign Service’s attitude of “waiting for bad things to happen” before they worked on solving problems. She knew the next 10 years would be critical for the lobster industry and that diversifying and adapting would be essential. Reports showed the Gulf of Maine warming three times faster than the global ocean’s average. And as water temperatures rise, lobster larvae will have an increasingly hard time surviving.
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It was here that Warner saw an opportunity: seaweed. As a market, seaweed was already growing exponentially. Previously just an import, it is increasingly becoming a part of the American diet. What was once only encountered in sushi restaurants as a fluorescent green garnish is becoming a staple of American grocery stores, restaurants, and home kitchens. These days, children grow up eating dried seaweed snacks, and their parents add seaweed to smoothies.
And yet almost all of America’s seaweed was coming from overseas. Warner knew roughly 4,000 lobster fishermen in Maine owned their businesses, and most didn’t fish in the winter. What if they could grow and harvest seaweed during those months? And in so doing, they could create a buffer against the troubles ahead.
Warner remembers thinking: Nobody is doing this. We should do this. We could turn it around tomorrow. So she reached out to the founders of Ocean Approved, the country’s first commercial seaweed farm, and said, “You guys have a really small supply. All these fishermen could grow for you.” She suggested the company approach two fishermen she knew, teach them how to farm, and buy their product back. Ocean Approved agreed, and it transformed their business. (One of those original fishermen was a woman, but as Warner explains, the women fishermen she knows balk if you call them anything other than fishermen. “The only difference between a guy fisherman and me is that I don't piss off the side of a boat,” one once told her.)
Over the next couple of years, the company became Atlantic Sea Farms, and Warner took over as president and CEO. She says the company works closely with their farmers so they can maintain a strong “no jerk policy.” This approach enables the trust required to introduce fishermen to this new industry. To that end, she recalls being on the dock one day with one of their partner fishermen while he was weighing out seaweed. Atlantic Sea Farms wrote him his check on the spot. Other fishermen looked on, curious about what he was doing, pulling up all that kelp. He turned to them, held up his check, and said, “Look, boys, this is the future.”
Atlantic Sea Farms now has a roster of 27 partner fishermen. While in 2018 the company produced 30,000 pounds of kelp, in 2022 they anticipate growing 1.2 million pounds. Atlantic Sea Farms offers frozen kelp cubes for smoothies or soups, Ready Cut (blanched and shredded kelp), sea-chi (their spin on kimchi), sea-beet kraut (sauerkraut), and seaweed salad — without the additives and high sugar content found in some varieties. Before the pandemic, they focused on restaurants. But now they’re shipping directly to consumers, and being sold nationwide in stores like Sprouts, Whole Foods Market, and Wegmans, and people are doing all kinds of things with their product: putting it on salads, sandwiches, or eggs; or using it to wrap around rice, sprinkle on top of halibut tacos, or add to clam linguine. Restaurant chefs are using it, too. Ilma Lopez, two-time James Beard Award nominee and co-owner of Chaval in Portland, Maine, recently used it to make her Maine Kelp Mafaldine.
Warner says that growing their seaweed in Maine allows Atlantic Sea Farms to offer a higher quality, fresher product. Because most seaweed was previously imported, it had to be dried, rehydrated, and then dyed to make it look more appealing. “It looks like Mountain Dew,” she says of the imported, rehydrated stuff. Many Americans didn’t even know what fresh kelp looked like. “They’ve never had domestic kelp,” she says, adding that Maine has “super clean water,” which affects the taste and health of their seaweed.
Though Warner came to Maine for family reasons, and is now happily raising two young sons near Portland, she recalls that she came “kicking and screaming. I think I called it the Arctic Tundra.” Now, she’s a full-fledged convert, singing its praises with the same gusto as the Maine Office of Tourism. She lives in a house surrounded by a 300-acre land trust. She doesn’t lock her car. And before our call, she went mountain biking at dawn with a seafood-industry friend on a trail abutting her property.
Traveling only deepens her conviction that she made the right choice. Now, she says, “I go to New York, and I’m like, ugh, I just paid three times the price, and the meal was half as good, and the service was awful.” The night before we talk, she had gone to a restaurant with a partner farmer in Portland. She brought some of her product to show the chef, and within half an hour, he had whipped up a series of dishes incorporating the kelp. They drank local beer, and other fishermen they knew came by to chat. “Next thing I know, I’m there for four hours, and I’m like, Why would I ever live anywhere else?”
Maine’s lobster industry is mostly run at the family level, not by large corporations, which Warner explains is deliberate. Fishing in the state is an owner-operator industry, meaning that in most cases, the people who own the businesses are the ones getting their hands dirty. To fish, you have to have a license, and you have to be on the boat. You can’t sell your fishing license, so licenses pass down from family members through the generations. Warner explains, “It’s not like these are fleets where a lot of money is in the hands of a few.”
“Lobster requires the entire family,” Warner says. The wife might be a fisherman herself, or she might be the bookkeeper; the kids are involved. Warner jokes that Maine’s lobster fishermen are kind of like socialists, though they might not admit it. They work collaboratively, own their wharves together, belong to co-ops, and get dividends at the end of the year. “Everybody has ownership of the supply chain,” she says. “We talk about the supply chain like it’s an inanimate object, but the supply chain is people making things.” Asked if she’s scared of Maine’s future, she seems just the opposite. She says that farming at sea offers different possibilities beyond what terrestrial agriculture gave us. “We can see the mistakes of the past,” she says, referring to the damage that large-scale land agriculture has done. “We don't have to replicate them.”
Laura Smith Writer
Laura Smith is a journalist living in Oakland, California.
Bryan Derballa Photographer
Bryan Derballa is a New York–based photographer with experience shooting a wide variety of work, from documentary to portraiture to fashion, for numerous newspapers, magazines, and commercial clients.