January 8th, 2016
The Seaweed Farmer
Paul Dobbins was not what I was expecting. Before I can explain my expectation, I should unravel why something that happened not far from Portland, Oregon lead me to meet up with Paul in a diner in Portland, Maine.
The Pacific Northwest coast is home to the nation’s largest shellfish producers. Abundant, thinly settled coastline and cold, nutrient-filled water make this ideal habitat for oysters and their kin. It’s been that way since the first humans made their way into the New World along the kelp highway, some 14,000 years ago.
But that was then and this is now, when climate change has made the Pacific Northwest ground zero for ocean acidification. This is an ominous sea-change, where excess carbon in the sky bleeds into the sea, making the water acidic. Already, it’s strong enough to dissolve the shells of “seed” oysters.
While the northwest shellfish industry has bought time with temporary fixes, the future is bluntly dire unless something radical can be devised. Fortunately, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a tiny operation that routinely punches way above its weight, is beginning a multi-year experiment which has the potential to do just that. With funding from Paul Allen, they’ve begun to see if kelp “plantations” can be used to extract carbon from seawater around certain bays — effectively sweetening the acidic water so that those bays can become shellfish refuges. If the notion proves out, this is a project with historic promise. But to approach that promise, PSRF has learn to farm seaweed.
They found their kelp farming Rosetta Stone in a how-to manual that’s floating around on the internet. You can have your own copy here, and if you take a look, you’ll see the whole process laid out, every last nitty-gritty detail in a wonderfully low-tech approach. Not that it’s simple, exactly — propagating microscopic kelp and setting it in open water farms isn’t easy — but the authors make it seem like something that a reasonably engaged tinkerer could do in his or her garage. As you’ve guessed, this was the trail that lead to Paul Dobbins.
So who was I expecting? Scientist, farmer, kelpophile — who knew? — but someone with a vision, the kind of person who would figure out a mysterious form of aquaculture and give away that knowledge for free. I’ve met people like this. They inhabit the fringes of the food system, far from the feedlot beef and GMO corn which are its center of economic gravity. They’re people who tend to be idealistic, discontented, and — overtly or covertly — revolutionaries.
But Paul, knowledge-sharing seaweed farmer, didn’t fit my stereotype. My first impression of him, lean, forthright, quick-thinking and quick-talking, was as a kind of businessman. It was an impression confirmed by Paul, who called himself a “serial entrepreneur,” albeit the kind of entrepreneur who helped put himself through college by diving for scallops.
Paul, I discovered, comes from a background in biotech and has tremendous sophistication about product development and marketing, which is how his company, Ocean Approved, approaches seaweed farming. “It’s how you have to enter every business. You look at the market, and you look at the products and at what products you might be able to bring to the market. Then you say, okay, does the technology exist to do that, and if not, okay, backfill, and develop the technology.”
This wasn’t about a home-grown alternative to Asian seaweed we’re familiar with, this was about creating new products geared specifically to American consumers and which would bring a premium price. To identify those products, Ocean Approved had a limited phase where they test marketed through local retail sales. Now, with their offerings fine-tuned, OA is concentrating on institutions like restaurants, grocers, colleges and hospitals.
OA did all that initial work without farming at all, carefully harvesting wild kelp for their R&D. But once they had their products defined, it was time to change from seaweed gatherers to seaweed farmers. “Our ultimate goal was to develop farming technologies that, with two exceptions, can be purchased out of your local marine store, PetCo and Home Depot.” The thinking behind this came from the recognition that “if we want to scale our business, we will not be able to scale our farms fast enough to meet demand. However, if other people are farming and want to sell their crops to us, then a lot of us can grow a lot of product faster. So it helps in our supply chains and gives us the ability to go faster than if we were going it alone.”
In short, I had been completely wrong. The unintimidating, highly accessible garage-band kelp farming manual was not the work of a wild-eyed dreamer, but a targeted and deliberate piece of Paul’s big-picture business strategy. “We think of ourselves primarily as a food products company, not as an aquaculture company.” Maine, with its remarkably clean water and powerful north-woods-and-sea iconography “is a great brand… an unbelievable value in the marketplace.”
I was fascinated by the paradox: a business-centric food products startup in Maine pioneers technology that enables environmental crusading in Washington State. Only it wasn’t quite that simple.
I asked Paul if he was from Maine, but as New Englanders know, that’s a tough question. Paul gave a sort of crooked grin, before saying “It’s an ascribed status, not an achieved status.” The social mores of Maine mean that even though Paul went to school here, lived most of his life here, and descends from a family which has lived in Maine for 300 years — no, he’s not a Mainer. As the ancient joke that’s not a joke goes: “If your cat had kittens in the oven, wouldya call ‘em ‘buns’?”
But Paul loves the place and isn’t willing to accept that its glory days are irrevocably over, even if others might disagree. “We have a couple strikes against us. We’re the end of the line. Our resources are dwindling. We have the oldest average population in the US. Our youth travels south.” But in Paul’s eyes, Maine is a state “rich in desire, enthusiasm and cunning, which is a Maine kind of word.”
Those terms might describe Paul, as well. In his previous life in biotech, he spent his days more or less continuously traveling. He’d return home to see his wife and children only briefly before heading back out and one day it occurred to him that he was quite simply missing their childhood. So he quit. For the next year, he went to every “recital, teacher meeting, chorus concert — it was fabulous. And then my wife said, ‘all right, you have to find something to do’.”
As he cast about for a new career, his children were still on his mind: what would make them stay when they grew up? In other words, what could he do to help Maine create a future to go along with its storied past?
He knew that he wanted it to be coastal. The Maine lobster fishery churns onward, but it’s really a surviving remnant of a much larger inshore fishery that’s almost vanished. The timber business, too, is a shadow of what it once was and, of course, it’s a trick for any economy based on extraction to not end up hollowed out.
That’s when he hit upon aquaculture. But even with 3,500 miles of jagged coastline, aquaculture is not an easy target in Maine. For one thing, most of that coastline is privately owned and by people who own it because Maine looks wild, not farmed. The economy is heavily dependent on a tourist industry which throngs the water in summer, so ditto. The lobstermen, whose buoys speckle the coastal waters in astonishing numbers, also had to be respected. What’s more, Maine’s first venture into aquaculture, salmon farming in the 70s and 80s, gave the whole notion of aquaculture a black eye in the state.
In farming kelp, though, Paul thought he saw a way of threading the needle. Kelp can be farmed in discrete strips, one thousand feet long and one hundred feet wide, hidden below the surface, marked only by buoys at each end. They are fundamentally invisible and most pleasure boats and lobster boats can travel right over top of them without fouling. And then there’s the seasonality of it — whereas summer is lobster season, kelp season is winter. The lobster boats don’t come out and the summer people aren’t here either. It’s a happy circumstance that would allow lobstermen to pick up “kelping” as their winter job.
In other words, if Paul and his team could figure a way to farm it and make salable products from it, kelp looked promising. Still, there were hurdles. That’s because while there are 29 nations in the world that farm seaweed (and two in North America) it hadn’t happened in the United States. From a regulatory point of view, the whole thing was a mystery.
So Paul and Ocean Approved had to do everything at once — work with the state Department of Marine Resources to develop regulations, devise a farming technology, invent and refine products. They didn’t have a lot of money and they didn’t have a lot of manpower. But Paul’s love of Maine was returned in many and various ways. “If you have a good idea and good intentions, people are willing to help.”
When they needed workspace, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute gave it to them at a bargain rate. When they were stalled because they were thousands short for equipment, another businessman told Paul, “what you need, I’ve got in my garage. Go get it.” Ocean Approved’s lab resides at Southern Maine Community College. In the fall, Ocean Approved uses the lab to make kelp seed and in the spring, the college uses the lab to teach marine botany. Student classwork includes experiments Paul needs run and so it’s little surprise that some students graduate and end up working at Ocean Approved.
Which brings us back to the Kelp Farming Manual. While Paul had a self-interested reason for open sourcing it — to foster farmers who would feed OA’s production line — there was another reason, or “a little bit of altruism” as he put it. The majority of their research was funded by NOAA, so “we felt that if we’re using federal dollars — and we all pay federal taxes — that the information should be available to everyone.”
So, a laser-like focus on the product, an embrace of the reality that “you can’t and shouldn’t do this alone,” a determination to be part of the community and an ethical spine means that Ocean Approved is now full speed ahead, employing 32 people in their high season.
These are still early days, but Paul knows he’s onto something. There are perhaps seven places in the world where current, nutrients, sunlight and clean water come together to create ideal kelp farming waters, and the Gulf of Maine is one of them. What’s more, kelp and kelp farming are restorative. Maine’s waters are lovely, but everything about the American lifestyle — from lawns to plumbing — funnels a steady stream of nitrogen into sea, where it fuels fish-killing algae blooms.
Kelp, however, is an antidote because kelp draws excess nitrogen out of the water as it grows. It’s an unequivocal benefit, which is why Ocean Approved is the first aquaculture operation to be endorsed by an environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation out of Boston. In contrast, the immense view-them-from-space Chinese seaweed farms which produce most supermarket nori are sited in the bays of churning industrial cities, bays which will not be cleaned up in any of our lifetimes.
But Paul’s ambition is more than a good product. He’s aware that he’s becoming part of a food system that — while it pulls down immense profits for the conglomerates holding the reins — has a dubious future.
We import 90% of the seafood that we eat in this country. Only two percent is inspected, over half comes from sea farms and so we can either stick our heads in the sand or we can develop it in a sustainable way moving forward. If you read the UN FAO reports? In 2050, we’ll still be able to eat in the US, but it’ll be far more expensive as a percentage of income. And what are we going to do? We think that aqua culture is a means to help alleviate that. We’re not making a lot more arable land. We’re surely not making more fresh water. Fresh water is a significant issue. (In kelp) we can grow a highly nutritious vegetable with no arable land, no fresh water, no pesticides, and no fertilizers.
What’s more, a kelp farm grows things besides kelp. Because Ocean Approved sites its farms in empty spots in the water column, “mudholes” with no bottom structure, the appearance of a minor kelp forest is dramatic change, the foundation of pop-up ecosystems. “Suddenly we have winter pollack and hake and little urchin larvae, there are snails, starfish, crabs and lobsters living around the moorings. It’s like a huge aquarium. And in the winter, when the water’s crystal clear, you look down and watch this happening.”
It’s hard to overstate how rare it is find a form of agriculture that fosters non-human life while providing for human needs. Sitting there with Paul, I commented on the difference between a kelp farm and cattle feedlot — basically the difference between a meadow and a concentration camp — and I got a fascinating demonstration. It was not, clearly, the first time he’d had the thought. What if, Paul said, rearranging salt shakers and coffee cups to mock it up, you combine those things? “So you have a salmon pen. Then ring that with mussel floats. And then you ring that a seaweed farm. The salmon consume protein and give off organic nitrogen. The mussels consume organic nitrogen and give off inorganic nitrogen. The kelp needs inorganic nitrogen to prosper. It’s a virtuous cycle. And they’re working on making salmon food out of kelp.”
What Paul was talking about goes by the charmless name of Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture. The “trophic” part refers to the food web and what it means is that this system mimics the way nature uses everything and wastes nothing. IMTA is still experimental at this point, but in watching Paul talk about it, I finally began to see how his mind works. The last thing he needs is more on his plate, but there’s a restlessness and curiosity in him that won’t stop, that is always wondering what happens if you push the notion just a little bit farther, wonders what possibilities might lie in paths not yet taken.
With cattle, it takes a thousand gallons to produce a pound of beef. Not the case with salmon. And the feed efficiency of a salmon is so much more efficient than a cow for the simple reason that salmon don’t have legs. Cows fight gravity. So what salmon eat goes into building protein in their body. It’s a very efficient way to create a food source and it’s a very efficient way to extract profit, if you will, from the ocean. And people say profits’s a bad word and depending on how it’s done, it can be a very bad word. But if it’s done sustainably, we need profits. That’s part of sustainability.
We’ve all encountered the various faces of socially minded capitalism, “doing good by doing well,” as they like to say, typically on the first page of their promotional materials. But Paul’s something different. Yes, the goal of Ocean Approved is definitely to do well, but at the same time, you can’t miss the sense of Paul’s exploration, his questioning of verities and assumptions, his recognition that while he is expert at the process of bringing a product to market, that he is also making his way through terra incognita, on a path which is only truly navigable with a compass of the moral variety.
What he’s searching for is a way where things that we’re often told are incompatible are not merely compatible, but are woven into a piece. Where Maine, for instance, becomes a place where children are not forced to emigrate to find work and where the damage done by previous generations of making a living is mended, not through retreat, but by making a living in a different way. The business that Paul sees — the one that he is daily discovering — is a business that understands and respects the natural resource and simultaneously understands that if you don’t create beneficial ways for people to earn their food and shelter, then they will use destructive ways. Not because they don’t care, but because they have no options. In this unlikely melange, I think — I hope — I see a glimpse of the future.
But for now, for Paul, it’s one day at a time, fulfilling roles that see him as both corporate president and waterman, working the kelp farms in the silence of winter. It sounds punishing, but to Paul, it’s “remarkably beautiful. To be on the water, where there’s not a ripple? Nothing. Flat. It’s almost disorienting. But beautiful. And to be in a snowfall out there? On a calm day, hearing the snow hit the water?”
As he recounts what it’s like to work the waters of Casco Bay, his velocity slows, the coiled spring of his energy slackens, just a little, and I realize that this just might be the very heart of it to him, the best thing about it all.
“I was looking right down the bay. It was unbelievably cold out, but crystal clear. And I can see these little white… puffs. All going up in the air. Hundreds of them. It was a school of dolphin coming towards me and it was so cold that when they exhaled, it turned to ice crystals. And the sun was right behind them, so I couldn’t see the dolphins, but I could see these flares, like little fireworks, coming right towards me. So I called my wife and I said, I don’t know what I’m seeing, I’m either hallucinating or I’m seeing the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And come to find out, the dolphins just streamed by on either side of me…”
You can see the image playing behind his eyes as he smiles.
“That was the paycheck for the day.”