Running a kelp business that is all about involved learning

Long Line Kelp Growers students (and teachers) on their first day at Herring Gut Learning Center

Two days a week eight students from the St. George School make the trip to Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde to be part of the Center’s Long Line Kelp Growers program. They signed up for the program to learn how to run an aquaculture business—from what it takes to produce a quality product to marketing it to consumers and selling it at a profit.

“‘The Long Line’ program was specifically designed just for grades 6 through 8 from the St. George School,” explains Holly Merrow, one of the program’s teachers. “It’s a program the kids ask to be a part of, so they have to make up the school work that they miss when they are here.”

While the St. George School doesn’t consider the Long Line program an academic substitute for elements of its middle-school curriculum, learning what is involved in farming kelp does require an understanding of the marine science involved. Late September and October is the nursery season, when the students are learning how to “seed” the kelp. This involves stimulating the sorus tissue of mature kelp to release spores that can attach to seaweed string that has been wrapped around pvc pipe and placed in indoor fish tanks that comprise the nursery. Once the attached spores have gone through their reproductive process, they will produce tiny baby kelp plants. When the young kelp is an adequate size, the students will then place them in the Learning Center’s lobster pound which will host the students’ kelp farms. Here the plants will grow throughout the winter. Harvest season is in the spring.

Students identifying seaweed with St. George School Herring Gut Coordinator Leslie Ferguson looking on

Sarah Redmond, the owner of Springtide Seaweed, an organic seaweed aquaculture company located down east in Frenchman Bay, began helping the students with the seeding process last year. “Bringing seaweed aquaculture into schools is a great thing,” she says, “because this industry is pretty new in Maine and we need to encourage familiarity with seaweed science as well as innovation in developing the industry.” Redmond adds, “There is tremendous interest from the fishing community and our coastal communities in how seaweed aquaculture can fit into our existing waterfront economy, but the big challenge is building the processing infrastructure needed for this new seafood industry. So Port Clyde is a great place, where if you could build the infrastructure here there are a lot of fisherman here looking for ways to diversify. Building the processing infrastructure is key—you can grow all the kelp you want, but if you can’t process it you’ve got a problem.”

Redmond strongly believes “kelp is the future,” and she and others, such as the folks at Ocean Approved, the first commercial kelp aquaculture company in the U.S. founded in Portland in 2006, are helping the Herring Gut students learn why. During a recent seeding session in the Herring Gut kelp nursery, Redmond and Leslie Ferguson, the Herring Gut Coordinator at the St. George School, prompted the students to itemize the positive reasons for growing kelp. For one thing, they noted, kelp is a crop that combats ocean acidification which helps prevent, among other things, shell disease in lobsters. But perhaps its foremost positive quality, student Madison Barbour noted cheerfully, is that, “Kelp is the new kale!” This is because it is a crop with great health benefits. As Redmond points out, the fact that kelp is naturally salty makes it a great substitute for table salt.

“If you think about it, the leading causes of death and disease tends to be nutrient-related or diet-related disease and a lot of people are aware of that. So they are trying to cut down on things like sodium, table salt, processed food. But we still need salt, we need mineral salts, so seaweed can provide that. What’s been happening is that people are trying to get away from table salt but now they are missing iodine since table salt is iodized, so their diets are becoming unbalanced. Seaweed can restore the imbalance.”

Another reason that kelp is attracting commercial interest is that it can be used in so many different ways. While the kelp is growing in Herring Gut’s lobster pound this winter, in addition to periodically taking measurements and recording farm data, the Long Line Kelp Growers students will be investigating some of those applications in preparation for choosing which products they want to make. Last year, for example, the Long Line Kelp Growers students used their kelp to make kelp seasoning that they used on french fries, popcorn and bagels as well as in smoothies. They also made fizzy bath “bombs,” lotions and even nail polish.

“The students run the program like a business,” says Georgie Burress, who is also one of the program’s Herring Gut educators. “They all have different roles within the business—there’s the company spokesperson, the secretary, the treasurer. They’ll apply for the different roles, interview for them, and be elected to those positions. And they will hold monthly business meetings in which they will make decisions together.”

As the year progresses, the students will also be chronicling their work through photographs, illustrations and written pieces that they will use to collaborate on a book-length manuscript that will be published next May. “Expeditionary learning is about making a product that shows what you’ve learned and that you can present to the community,” Merrow points out. “That is what the book is all about.”

If Merrow and Burruss will not be grading each student on their work from an academic point of view, they will still be providing their teachers at the St. George School with an evaluation of each student’s participation in the program. “The school wants work habits evaluations and behaviors evaluations”, Merrow says. “We hope that at the end of the year they’ll really be working together and that they’ll be able to communicate well about what they have learned to do. A big part of our objective with the program is to work on making them much more involved learners. Our platform is marine science, but those are our real goals, that they get those soft skills that they need.”—JW

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