Harvesting seaweed ‘source’ seeks sustainability

[USA] Growing up, Greg Tobey would see skiffs piled high with seaweed moving slowly around his island home. At the time, he didn’t think much about why anyone would want seaweed. Now he’s the general manager of SOURCE INC., a company that harvests seaweed along the Maine coast.

Most Mainers don’t even know why someone would want to harvest seaweed. Despite being a growing industry along the Maine coast, it remains foreign to many. Seaweed harvested in Maine goes largely toward two types of products: nutritional supplements and fertilizer. The seaweed Tobey and his employees are harvesting and processing is going toward SOURCE, the company’s micronutrient supplement for horses, dogs and, yes, even people.

Tobey and his sister, Bonnie, have run the harvesting operation of SOURCE INC. for five years, but the company has been around much longer. Susan Domizi, the founder and president of SOURCE INC., started the company in the 1970s after personally experiencing the nutritional value that can be found in seaweed.

At the time, Domizi was involved in the horse industry, with aspirations of joining the Olympic equestrian team, but she had a problem. Her horse, Hull, had hoof problems. After a long and largely fruitless search, Domizi found a seaweed product that helped her horse overcome its woes.

Inspired by the results but unimpressed with the product, Domizi decided that she would make her own quality nutritional product from rockweed. Using her background in biochemistry, Domizi was able to create and release a flagship product, SOURCE, in 1975.

A SOURCE INC. mechanical harvester collects seaweed. NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD
A SOURCE INC. mechanical harvester collects seaweed. NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD

“Bottom line is, I never meant to be in business,” said Domizi. “But when people had seen the changes in my horse, they wanted some too — and it grew from there.”

From there, Domizi expanded her company, adding to her product line and adding employees. Unhappy with the quality of seaweed she was importing, Domizi eventually started renting facilities in Georgetown to harvest her own seaweed.

“The seaweeds I was buying, some of them were charred dark brown, some of them you could smell the oil from the oil furnace, some were molding. They just weren’t anything like what we could do ourselves,” said Domizi.

She wanted to know exactly where her raw product was coming from, and know that it was being harvested in a sustainable manner. Harvesting the rockweed in-house, however, wasn’t enough. In the early years of Domizi’s company, as well as when Tobey first saw rockweed harvesters around his island home, rockweed harvesting in Maine was mainly done by raking. Besides being quite laborious, Domizi was concerned over the impact of raking on the sustainability of the industry.

“Everything then was being hand harvested, and with hand harvesting, at the sorting table you would find hold fasts, where the entire plants had been ripped off, rocks, muscles — a lot of bycatch. But that’s the way seaweed harvesting was done then,” said Domizi.

Domizi tasked her husband, an engineer by trade, to design a mechanical harvester that could reduce by-catch and ensure that the harvesters weren’t cutting the rockweed too low. Finding that the mechanical harvesters used in Norway and Iceland either wouldn’t work on the Maine coast or were not environmentally friendly enough, Domizi’s husband designed an innovative harvester that came in horizontally to the plants.

Those machines have gone through several generations and modifications since then. The two current harvesters, imaginatively named H1 and H2 (Harvester 1 and Harvester 2), stand out among the lobster and fishing boats dotting the coast.

“It kind of looks like a ride-on lawn mower met a pontoon boat,” said Tobey.

At first sight, the description is not far off. The flat rafts are fairly simple on the surface, with a seat and controls toward the front and a small engine housed in the back — but the real magic happens below the surface. A large cone, which prevents the machine from cutting the seaweed below 16 inches (a state regulation), protrudes from the front of the boat. A rotating blade cuts the seaweed, and it is then sucked through a tube and deposited in a net floating behind the boat.

Tobey’s favorite analogy to explain why they use mechanical harvesters is a lawn mower. Say you take a teenager and have them mow your lawn. Before long he’s texting or otherwise distracted and forgets about mowing — the lawn mower is still on, but it’s just sitting in the same place. When he finally gets back to work and moves the lawn mower, what’s the difference between the area that he spent seven minutes on and the area he just passed over?

“There’s no change. That’s the thing about mechanical harvesting — it takes out the human error,” Tobey said.

With the mechanical harvesters, SOURCE doesn’t have to worry about cutting the seaweed to short. And according to Domizi’s meticulous record keeping, the company has seen a drastic drop in by-catch since switching to mechanical harvesting. While the odd periwinkle gets sucked into the net, it’s nowhere near what they got with hand raking.

“Needless to say, by-catch reduction has been significant,” said Tobey.

The two 10-year-old prototypes being used right now, however, are soon to be retired. Despite attempts to reduce noise output with a double exhaust, Tobey thinks that the machines are a bit too loud and a few residents with waterfront properties have complained. The new machines will be quieter, and Tobey plans to replace the gas engines with diesel ones to make them more efficient. The new models are just another step in the company’s attempt to find the best way to harvest seaweed on Maine’s rocky coast.

Once harvested, the seaweed is transported back to Brunswick to be processed. Each bag is individually numbered, and that number will follow the product all the way through its journey to Connecticut. Domizi wants to know exactly where each piece of seaweed that goes into her supplements comes from.

With the two harvesters, the company hauls in an average of 18 bags a day, averaging about 800 pounds each day. The seaweed loses about two thirds of its weight when dried out.

“Pretty much since I’ve been here, every ounce of seaweed that comes in is processed within 24 hours,” said Tobey.

With the public slowly becoming aware of the seaweed industry in Maine, SOURCE INC. is trying to educate the public about what exactly they do. Domizi, who calls herself an environmentalist, wants Mainers to understand the science behind seaweed harvesting. To that end, the company set up a panel in Harpswell with more than 15 participants, including researchers, members of the seaweed industry, and regulators to discuss sustainability and seaweed generally.

Setting that meeting up was a lot of work, said Domizi, but she hopes to continue reaching out and educating the community.


Photo: GREG TOBEY, SOURCE INC. general manager, heads back to Cundy’s Harbor after checking in on the two mechanical seaweed harvesters.NATHAN STROUT / THE TIMES RECORD

View original article at: Dear Ben & Jerry’s, why is there seaweed in my ice cream?

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