Seven Feet Underwater, Bowdoin's Kelp Farm Grows
The growing season for kelp is wintertime and into spring. So last autumn, Caspard and Paul Joyce, Bowdoin's marine operations manager, dropped two anchors attached to thirty-foot ropes about 1,250 or so feet from the Schiller Coastal Studies Center dock.
Between these two lines, set fifty feet apart and kept afloat with two buoys, they strung a rope seven feet below the sea surface wrapped with thousands of sugar kelp seeds. (Which are actually tiny pieces of kelp, Caspard said. "They're really cute in my opinion!")
Then they let the system be. Since the initial set up, the baby kelp has grown into the long, thick, brown-green strands that people along the Maine coast are more accustomed to seeing strewn along beaches.
Caspard said the original plan was to provide some seaweed to Bowdoin Dining. In the past, Bowdoin chefs have served miso mushroom kelp soup and kelp slaw with mussels. The kelp will also be used in the Schiller Coastal Studies Center's marine tanks, and the remainder will become fertilizer for the Bowdoin Organic Garden.
Eat Your Sea Vegetables
Beyond being part of Maine's iconic scenery, a lot of native seaweeds—or "sea vegetables" as they're sometimes called—are increasingly seen as desirable commodities.
"It's just wild to me to think about how many seaweed species are out there and are edible and interesting culinarily speaking," Caspard said. It's just a matter of Westerners developing a taste for it. "Seaweed is not typically thought of as a Euro-American flavor, so a lot of people don't like it right away. It's a much more common flavor in Asian cuisines," she added.
Yet more Mainers are seeking out seaweed. Between 2015 and 2019, the amount of marine algae harvest in the state has increased from 14,582 pounds to 280,612 pounds. Lobstermen and fishermen, whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change and overfishing, are turning to aquaculture as a replacement for, or complement to, traditional fishing. And kelp farming, compared to other sea farming ventures, is an easy and inexpensive way to earn extra income.
"What is so great about seaweed aquaculture, relative to agriculture, is there are no inputs," Caspard said. "You don't need fertilizer or fresh water, and arguably you don't even need land."
Right now, Maine companies like Atlantic Sea Farms—which employs Bowdoin graduates James Crimp ’14 and Bailey Mortiz ’16—are making value-added products with seaweed, like kimchi. It's being dried as flakes to serve as a salt substitute, and it is being turned into tea. "I've been putting it in baked goods," Caspard said.
Yet, it's much more than just a snack. Kelp might also be able to help prevent the ocean from becoming more acidic with rising carbon dioxide levels, a condition that threatens shellfish and other sea organisms. This is at the root of Caspard's interest in the crop.
"Kelp and other seaweeds tend to grow fast. When photosynthesizing, organisms grows fast and soak up a lot of carbon dioxide," she explained. "It is exciting to think about kelp as a potential mitigator for ocean acidification, which is an ongoing threat we have to address."
Bowdoin Ocean Farm
Bowdoin's kelp farm is a student-driven effort that began in 2017 when a group of students pitched the idea to the Maine Food System Innovation Challenge. The team—made up of Jack Fullerton ’19, Eleanor Paasche ’20, Daniel Strodel ’20, and Natalie Youssef ’19—came in second place in the college division, earning them a bit of startup money for the ocean farm.
Fullerton then won a funded internship grant from Career Exploration and Development to begin the first steps of setting up a viable aquaculture operation off the shore of the Coastal Studies Center.
Last summer, Caspard picked up where Fullerton left off. Working with Assistant Director of the Coastal Studies Center Steven Allen, who has helped support the farm from the start, she renewed the state license Fullerton first obtained. She also bought equipment like anchors, ropes, and kelp seed with what remained of the competition money.
Caspard first got interested in kelp as a Bowdoin Marine Science Semester student, in the fall of 2018. For her independent project, she researched kelp's effects on ocean pH levels. "What I found was that kelp in lower pH environments would generally bring that level up to a greater degree," she said.
To continue researching kelp aquaculture, Caspard completed an independent study with professor of biology Barry Logan last fall looking at the potential to scale up kelp farming into big operations that can have a sizable impact on the ocean. "Some people advocate that we can have large-scale kelp aquaculture that could change the marine landscape and provide serious ocean acidification mitigation," she said.
Caspard is hoping that after she graduates from Bowdoin, other students will embrace the Bowdoin aquaculture project. "Ideally there will be students working on this in future years," she said. "And it would be cool if it could be the Bowdoin Ocean Farm, the marine counterpart to the Bowdoin Organic Garden."