Edgecomb Eddy students get a lesson about, and a taste of, seaweed

Posted:  Tuesday, January 17, 2017 - 9:15am
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If you think a subject like the life cycle of seaweed might be a bit, well, boring, you should have been at Edgecomb Eddy School on Jan. 10.

Most of the students appeared transfixed during a talk that included a “show and tell,” with live kelp growing in a bubbling saltwater aquarium.

Boothbay Sea & Science Center (BSSC) President/Executive Director Pauline Dion collaborated with Edgecomb Eddy teacher Sarah Currier to bring seaweed expert Seth Barker to the school to talk about seaweed farming.

Currier said she already had a freshwater aquarium at the school, so the addition of a saltwater one was a perfect tie-in.

For the past four years, the BSSC has provided sailing and ocean science education to any and all interested school-age kids. One of its mottos, “No child will be left on the dock,” means just that. “We all felt that there was a need for a community program that focused on basic sailing skills and affordable access to the waterfront,” she said.

Now Dion has spearheaded a seaweed-growing science project and brought it to the school in an effort to show that the BSSC organization isn't just for summer anymore. “We want to be a year-round program,” she said. “There are a lot of after-school programs but we want to extend our ability to bring science into the classroom.”

The saltwater aquarium, located in a classroom, has live kelp growing on strings suspended in the water. The kelp spores were attached to the strings by Barker, and students will be in charge of helping the seaweed grow during the winter/spring semester.

A marine biologist, Barker, along with partner Peter Fischer, owns Maine Fresh Sea Farms, a seaweed farm on the Damariscotta River, at Clark Cove in Walpole.

Barker and Fischer are seaweed farmers.

Barker has been involved in the marine science and fisheries fields for over 40 years and is now focusing on the farming and sustainability of seaweeds — specifically sugar kelp. On Jan. 10, he donned his seaweed farming outfit, an orange rubber bib overall and rubber boots, and went to the school, carrying a couple of large buckets containing salt water and sugar kelp.

He spoke about the process of seaweed farming, from seed to maturity, to three separate groups of students — grades one and two, three and four, and five and six.

While Barker spoke about, and passed around, some of the different types of seaweed he farms and sells as food to restaurants, you could have heard a pin, or a piece of dried seaweed, drop. When he offered samples of dried sugar kelp to the kids, comments like, “Oh! This is good,” and “Oh, it's so salty, and sweet,” could be heard.

The students didn't appear to be at all bored with talk about seaweed. In fact, they were enthralled.

Barker said that the most important message he wanted to impress upon the kids was the similarity between land farming and sea farming. They both start with sowing seeds. “Just like you'd sow a row of corn, we seed a rope with seaweed seedlings and it grows from that,” he said.

One advantage of sea farming over land farming is that sea plants don't need watering — they live in water. And they don’t require fertilizer. They get their fertilizer and nutrients from the water. “All they need is a good place to grow, and sunlight,” Barker said. “If you're a plant, you need sunlight.”

Barker went on to explain that the seaweed plants at his farm grow throughout the winter and are harvested in April and May. And though they may not get a lot of sunlight during the winter, as spring comes, and the sun gets higher, the plants grow quickly.

His farm is set up to grow seaweed on ropes, 200 to 600 feet long, three to six feet below the surface of the ocean or river.

What I love about this whole idea is that seaweed grows in the winter,” Dion said. “We went to a seaweed farm last summer for the aquaculture program, and there was seaweed growing. But now is the time to watch it grow.

“The seaweed project is a perfect example of how local schools can capitalize on the resources (equipment, volunteers, etc.) that BSSC has to offer during the school year. BSSC is built on collaborations, and the seaweed project is just the tip of the iceberg — we look forward to ongoing opportunities for helping to ‘put the sea in science.’”

In March the seaweed that grows throughout the winter in the classroom will be taken to the BSSC location in East Boothbay and set in the ocean, to continue to grow.

For more information about seaweed farming, see the Maine Fresh Sea Farms website.