Sustainable Seaweed Company Practices - Maine Coast Sea Vegetables

We at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables understand that these gifts from the sea come with a responsibility to apply evolving sustainable practices in growing, harvesting, processing and distributing.  Sustainability has been our intention since 1971, and not just because our business thrives only when wild seaweed beds thrive.  We believe the health of the planet and all the living beings it supports depends on humanity striving for sustainability.  Here, we describe how MCSV and Maine’s seaweed industry addresses sustainability. In a future post we will discuss seaweed as a sustainable resource.

But what does sustainability mean, anyways?  After all, it seems like every company nowadays takes credit for sustainability.  Even ExxonMobil, the world’s 4th largest corporate contributor to the carbon dioxide blanketing our atmosphere and irrevocably altering the planet, has a sustainability mission.  What does it mean when companies such as ExxonMobil or Dow Chemical, responsible for dioxin, agent orange, and the Bhopal, India pesticide plant that exploded in one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, now tout a sustainability program?  Are these just more examples of greenwashing, where companies promote themselves as environmentally beneficial despite their environmental and sustainability record in general? We know that other corporations such as British Petroleum, Shell, and the airline Ryanair have all been credibly accused of greenwashing.

Oil refinery at dusk. Source Jack Moreh

We can’t really know if ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, deep in their corporate hearts, truly strive for sustainability or even believe in it.  Their long-term actions will speak louder than words.  However, the fact these corporations and many others are talking about sustainability at all tells us something we’ve known for a very long time; sustainability is important.  Which brings us back to the question, what is sustainability?

The word "sustain" comes from the Latin sustinere (sus-, from below and tenere, to hold), to keep in existence or maintain, and it implies long-term support or permanence.  Perhaps the simplest definition of sustainability is this one from the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development: “It meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.  This is an ancient philosophy that informed the collective wisdom of Native Americans. The Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy believed that tribal decision-makers should consider the effects of their actions and decisions for descendants seven generations into the future; known as the Seventh-Generation philosophy.  The concept of self-restraint was crucial to this philosophy because it prevented over-consumption of natural resources. By contrast, European ranchers and buffalo hunters lacked this philosophy and as a result nearly exterminated the great herds of buffalo, estimated at 50-60 million animals, that once roamed the American Plains.

Sustainability philosophy can be approached from various perspectives including social justice, corporate ethics, manufacturing, agricultural production, fisheries, environmental protection, and climate change.  Common to these perspectives is the concept of the three pillars of sustainability: social equity, economic viability, and environmental protection, collectively known as the triple bottom line.  Sustainability can be visualized in a Venn diagram as the intersection between all three.  In this diagram, an activity that is economically viable and protective of the environment but isn’t socially equitable is considered viable but not necessarily sustainable.  An activity that’s socially equitable and economically viable but not protective of the environment may be bearable, but again not fully sustainable.  It is only when all three pillars are addressed that the activity can be considered sustainable.

Sustainability circles

The University of Nottingham; licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

In 2015, the UN adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an urgent call for action by all countries in a global partnership.  The SDGs address various sustainability perspectives from within the three pillars, such as ending hunger; gender equality; clean energy; and the marine environment.  The marine environment is certainly a sustainability focus for a seaweed company, but we’re also a company of humans living and working in a community of others, and as dependent upon our landward environment as our seaward environment.  For us, sustainability is about more than ensuring the seaweed harvest doesn’t harm the beds for future generations.  The Safe Seaweed Coalition describes how seaweed can make a significant contribution to nine of the UN’s SDGs and helps contribute to another two SDGs.

How does our little seaweed company approach the three pillars of sustainability?  One of the first clues is found in our statement of intentions in the phrase “these gifts from the sea come with a responsibility”.  Seaweed truly is a gift. These ancient plants predate humans by millennia, and even though most seaweed used by humans is now farmed, most of ours still comes from natural wild beds.  Harvesting seaweed beds for livelihood comes with the responsibility to only take what natural production can sustain.  This means years where we have plenty of one species but not enough of another.  It means never cutting a plant or a bed in its entirety, but always leaving enough behind to ensure regrowth and reproduction.  To do this successfully requires knowledge of the unique ecology and biology of each species.

Responsibility extends beyond respect for the plants to our human community, our customers and our neighbors on land and at sea.  We bear a responsibility to our customers to provide them with the best information available about the nutrition, safety, and uses of sea vegetables. The harvesters who supply us with this gift from the sea share fishing grounds with lobster harvesters, clam diggers, scallop and sea urchin divers, and others.  Seaweed harvesters themselves often participate in these other fisheries.  Seaweed beds are vital to the health of the ecosystem supporting marine fisheries, and they offer food and shelter to many other creatures that visitors to Maine delight in seeing.  They also buffer ocean waves from battering coastal shores, helping protect beaches and uplands from erosion.   Seaweed harvesters and processors are deeply vested in preserving the critical role seaweed beds play in our home, the Gulf of Maine.

The second clue is found in the phrase “evolving sustainable practices”.  Sustainable practices evolve with technological and scientific progress, social justice issues, and the realities of climate change.  What was considered sustainable yesterday may not be so tomorrow.  An example can be found in the history of rockweed management in Canada.  Canadian seaweed fisheries were once mostly managed for single species resource sustainability based on the concept of maximum sustained yield. Harvesting was considered sustainable so long as it didn’t exceed the capacity of each seaweed species to regenerate.  However, rockweed plays an important ecological role and at least 22 species of fish are known to be associated with it in parts of their life cycle.  Rockweed is now managed with these considerations in mind, and today the Canadian harvest is considered more sustainable for the ecosystem as well as for the plant.

Technological progress can offer companies new tools for sustainable practice.  Advances in solar energy technology, for example, have improved the efficiency of solar panels and reduced their installation cost.  This has allowed a growing number of homeowners and businesses to offset their electricity carbon footprint with rooftop or ground solar arrays. Although MCSV does not yet have a solar array powering its processing plant, we are developing a solar farm on a separate property that will contribute to the grid and provide passive income. Sometimes, though, traditional technology remains the most sustainable choice. Most of our seaweed is still dried the traditional way using sun and wind, and one of our suppliers from Iceland even uses geothermal energy to dry seaweed.

The final part of our sustainability intention states that we apply sustainable practices to “growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing”.  How do these four areas relate to the triple bottom line of economic viability, social equity, and environmental protection?

Although sea vegetables are gifts from the sea, that doesn’t mean they’re free! Economic viability is key if we want to continue paying harvesters a fair price and supporting our owner/employees, while still offering sea vegetables at reasonable, affordable pricing. Harvesting sea vegetables is rewarding but hard work, and harvesters deserve a fair price.  A living wage keeps them from both overworking (burn out) and over harvesting – key elements of sustainability. Processing seaweed into the products found on our website isn’t enormously complicated, but it still requires a sanitary facility, dedicated workers, and compliance with all kinds of labor, food safety, Organic Certification, and other regulations, all of which add cost.  Distribution is the process of getting sea vegetables from the processing plant and into customers hands.  Distributors and shipping companies all have to meet their own bottom lines, and shipping costs only ever seem to go up. 

Maine Coast Sea Vegetables marked 50 years in business in 2021, which means we must be doing something right. During that time we’ve had to navigate an ever-changing landscape as seaweed grows in popularity and new companies enter the seaweed space.  Food regulations, customer expectations, distribution channels, shipping costs and other things affecting our business have also changed. To remain economically viable, we’ve had to adapt to changing times without compromising quality and customer support.

Adaptation can take many forms. For example, we’ve always specialized in wild harvested seaweeds, but we recognize that seaweed mariculture can offer a sustainable alternative that doesn’t take from wild beds.  In years when natural cycles reduce the abundance of certain species, or as climate change affects the abundance and distribution of wild seaweed, perhaps mariculture can close the gap. Although mariculture will never replace our wild harvest, we do expect to offer farmed seaweed as an option. At the same time, though, seaweed mariculture itself must be a sustainable enterprise subject to the same triple bottom line as the rest of our business. It can’t harm the environment, and if production costs caused retail prices to soar beyond the reach of ordinary people, it could also become economically unsustainable, socially inequitable, or both.

Farmed kelp line, Sorrento, Maine

Social equity is not financial equity, nor is it the same thing as equality.  Equity is the quality of being fair and impartial.  Social equity is about giving people opportunities to succeed and access to education to enable success. It’s also about working to dismantle systems and structures that block access to those opportunities.  The precise definition and application of social equity varies depending upon context. Social equity in education, healthcare, or the environment has different emphasis and wording, while sharing the common themes of fairness and justness. 

Broadly speaking, social equity is reflected in social and government policy, or in the context of institutions affecting many people, such as education, medicine, criminal justice, and public administration.  In that sense, a small company such as Maine Coast Sea Vegetables would appear to have little influence.  However, this isn’t necessarily the case.  Seaweed companies and the industry as a whole promote social equity a number of ways.

Worldwide, the seaweed industry has long been welcoming to women, providing them avenues for academic and economic success.  Japan still honors to this day the great phycologist Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker for her scientific achievements in the 1940’s that led to a breakthrough for Japan’s nori farmers. In Southeast Asia, seaweed farming as a family enterprise contributes to the well being of the women participating in it, though gender barriers still remain.  Here in Maine, the President of the Maine Seaweed Council is currently a woman and some of Maine's largest seaweed companies and mariculture farms are owned or managed by women, including our own company. Many of Maine’s top seaweed scientists are also women.

As a business, MCSV strives for social equity in all of our growing, harvesting, processing, and distribution practices.  Our Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) means we’re not just employees of MCSV, but owners as well.  Everyone working here has the opportunity to contribute to the company’s success, and in doing so to their own as well. When it comes to the growing and harvesting of seaweed, we support individual and family entrepreneurship over consolidation and large corporate ownership. When it comes to processing and distribution, we try to make sea vegetables accessible to as many people as possible through online retail sales, fair pricing, and public engagement.  Through outreach and education, we try to provide people of every socioeconomic status information about the nutrition, health, and culinary properties of sea vegetables.  We believe everyone should have access to these gifts from the sea!

We also believe everyone should have access to the sea. Maine’s seaweed industry is currently supporting a lawsuit that would give all the people of Maine, along with its many visitors, free and unfettered use of all Maine beaches.  Maine law is muddled on this topic and many shore front property owners believe they own the beach all the way out to the low tide mark, known as the intertidal zone. This means some feel entitled to post intertidal beach as “Private Property, No Trespassing” to discourage or outright prevent others from doing things like beach combing or harvesting rockweed from intertidal ledges. This is contrary to law in most coastal states and defies Public Trust Doctrine principles dating back many hundreds of years, which allow private ownership only to the high-water mark.

The seaweed industry obviously has a vested interest in this issue, but we also believe there is a strong social equity component that goes far beyond seaweed harvesters.  Coastal property in Maine and really just about anywhere is usually costly and out of reach for anyone who is not quite affluent.  Public beaches are few and crowded.  If every shore front property owner privatized the intertidal, vast stretches of Maine's coastline would only be accessible for recreation or other purposes to the affluent.  Most of Maine’s residents and visitors could be excluded, which hardly seems equitable.  To learn more about why we support this important lawsuit, visit the Our Maine Beaches website.

In turn, our customers help us give back to the community.  Part of the proceeds from every bar of Kelp Krunch™ we sell go to support Allied Whale, one of America's oldest whale research, conservation and educational organizations housed at the College of the Atlantic.  We also give a share of company earnings to over thirty marine, environmental, and social organizations chosen every year by our company employee owners.  We couldn’t do this without you, our customers, and seaweed, gifts from the sea.

The final sustainability pillar to address is the one that appears to most obviously fall within our domain: environmental protection.  Seaweed harvesters and companies all over the world share an intimate relationship with the marine environment; in our case, the Gulf of Maine.  The health of our businesses and that of many others depends upon the health of marine ecosystems.

This was known by Maine’s seaweed industry in 1993 when the Maine Seaweed Council (MSC) was formed.  This page on the MSC website describes the efforts and progress made by the MSC to promote sustainable seaweed harvesting over the past 28 years. Maine Coast Sea Vegetables was one of the founding members of the MSC and we continue to actively participate in it and support it. The MSC is now in the midst of refining its Best Sustainable Practices, and even though MCSV founder Shep Erhart has “retired”, he remains actively engaged in the process. As we state in our sustainability intention, sustainable practices are always evolving.

As a company, MCSV strives to protect the environment in all aspects of our business.  Every year, we go through the rigorous process of certifying our processing plant for organic production and we help harvesters do the same for their operations.  People sometimes ask how wild seaweed beds can be Certified Organic, and our answer is that organic certification is about more than whether a farmer applies pesticides to their crops. Although organic certification does not equate to sustainable practices, as this article aptly demonstrates, organic certification standards can help support environmental conservation, one of the pillars of sustainability.  Sea vegetables fall under the USDA National Organic Panel wild-crop harvesting standard that requires sea vegetables (and other wild crops) to “be harvested in a sustainable manner that is not destructive to the environment and will sustain the growth and production of the sea vegetables”.  

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), one of several certification agencies, publishes the Sea Vegetable Guidelines for organic certification, where this and other standards can be found.  Maine Coast Sea Vegetables is proud to have helped develop these standards in the 1990’s and to have become one of the first Certified Organic seaweed companies anywhere in the world.

Other ways we try to protect the environment are by using biodegradable packaging and with our emphasis on locally sourced sea vegetables, which helps reduce carbon footprint and encourages personal relationships with harvesters.  Locally sourced has a corollary in locally sold; although we do sell all throughout North America, we don't usually sell internationally, in part because of the high carbon footprint of shipping overseas. We’re certainly not perfect; not all of our packaging is biodegradable, for example.  Dried seaweeds are very hydroscopic and require a robust vapor barrier, something that is still lagging in many biodegradable packaging options. Practical and economic concerns can sometimes get in the way of achieving the ideal, but we always try to keep the ideal as an intention. One day we hope to even sell edible seaweeds in packaging made from seaweed bioplastics!

Of course, sustainable seaweed is about far more than the practices of individual companies or the seaweed sector as a whole. While it’s growing in the ocean, whether at a mariculture site or in a wild bed, seaweed provides innumerable environmental benefits to our marine ecosystems. After it’s been harvested, processed, and sold, seaweed continues to offer innumerable benefits for the nutrition and health of humans and other animals, agriculture, and industrial processes.  Used wisely, seaweed is a gift from the sea that keeps on giving, a topic for a future blog post.