Atlantic Sea Farms doubles its harvest in 2020, shifts to retail focus
Atlantic Sea Farms, the first commercial seaweed farm in the United States, has produced more than 450,000 pounds of kelp this year, doubling its 2019 numbers.
Since 2009, the company has aimed to diversify work options for Maine’s coastal communities and promote the domestic growth of seaweed products over imported products – both missions that CEO Briana Warner believes has helped it navigate continued growth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We're just so dependent on the lobster fishery here in Maine. Not only is that dangerous, because climate change is doing some pretty terrifying things to our water, but it's also dangerous because you have all your eggs in one basket,” Warner told SeafoodSource. “Any wild fishery is going to be volatile, especially when you're talking about the waters warming. We have no idea what the lobster fishery is going to look like in 10, 15, or 20 years. What we do know is that there's going to be bad years, this year included, when the industry is just not able to kind of perform at the price level or the volume level that they have in the past. So having a source of supplemental income in the offseason makes sense for a lot of Maine fishermen.”
Atlantic Sea Farms has 24 partner farmers from Portland to Eastport who use the expertise and gear from lobstering to grow kelp in the winter. The company provides select fishermen with the tools to get started and commits to buying all the kelp grown by its partners, which it then sells in frozen cubes and jarred products like kimchi and sauerkraut.
Like the rest of the seafood industry, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in the spring, Atlantic Sea Farms lost most of its clients very quickly.
“When we were going to harvest in April, we lost 80 percent of our accounts overnight,” Warner said.
The collapse of the foodservice industry meant the company had to rapidly accelerate the launch of it’s retail strategy. The company expanded its retail reach throughout New England and is expected to hit a larger national grocery retail chain in early 2021.
“We do have so much support from people for what we're doing, that we were able to recover,” Warner said. “I'm not going to say back to where we were before, but very quickly we were able to add a lot of really amazing retail customers that are going to make sure that we can continue to grow at the rate that we were planning.”
The novelty of a seaweed-based product, Warner said, has helped aid the company’s growth.
“Sellers are really excited by the fact that we're bringing something that they've never seen before. The majority of the seaweed sold in the U.S. is imported from Asia and it’s dried – the fact that we’re offering fresh kelp grown in Maine is really attractive,” Warner said. People want to see foods that are good for them, functional, and that have a story behind them.”
For the remainder of the year, and the foreseeable future, the company will be focused on growing it’s retail brand and expanding the availability of its products. A tool on its website allows customers to find a retail location close to them that carries Atlantic Sea Farms products – and the map is set to expand regularly.
The company is also hyper-aware of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting its farmers – lobstermen who have been hit hard by foodservice drops and lack of tourism in the state.
“One thing that meant a lot to us is that we were able to send an email to all of our partner farmers right before harvest season started to say, ‘There's a lot to worry about right now, but we will hold our contract here and our commitment to you. COVID-19 is terrible and we’re all worried about other things, but don't worry about whether your kelp is being picked up, we will pick it up.’” Warner said. “And that that was not an easy promise to make. But it's something that we felt like was the only thing that mattered.”
Photo courtesy of the Maine Aquaculture Association