Photo credit: Connecticut Sea Grant

A three-year-old kelp farm in Maine is inspiring scientists to look toward seaweed cultivation for water pollution control and biofuel production.

Mimicking seaweed harvest techniques more widely used in Asia, the food company, Ocean Approved, is currently the only commercial kelp farm in the United States.

“Not only do we create a highly nutritious vegetable without creating any input, we’re cleaning the water by growing it and hopefully creating some new revenue streams in the local economy,” said Paul Dobbins, co-owner of the innovative farming business.

Dobbins said he gets two or three calls a week from farmers and researchers interested in starting up their own kelp farms.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” he said. “From an environmental standpoint, kelp is a green plant and it requires nitrogen, phosphorous and CO2 to grow. And in our coastal waters many times we’ll have too much of all three of those things. Growing kelp actually leaves the water cleaner because it takes those excess things out of the water.”

Connecticut Sea Grant, the federally funded coastal research program that helped Ocean Approved get its start, also financed the first kelp farm in Long Island Sound this year. Marine scientist Charles Yarish of the University of Connecticut at Stamford headed the project and is now studying which kelp strain most efficiently removes nitrogen pollution from the ocean.

Sea Grant’s communications director, Peg Van Patten, said the program also supports research into finding cost effective ways to use seaweed for biofuel production. Kelp yields methane as it decomposes, but scientists have yet to find a viable means of harnessing that energy, Van Patten said.

“Twenty years ago, it was not economically feasible to use kelp for biofuel because it was not cultivated commercially then,” Van Patten said. “It was harvested in the wild in the United States, if it was harvested at all. But now that we’re growing it indoors and outdoors, it may become feasible that kelp could be used as a biofuel in the near future.”