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May 29, 2015

MTI gives $50,000 to boost Maine algal industry

File PHOTO / LAURIE SCHREIBER
File PHOTO / LAURIE SCHREIBER
Seraphina Erhart and her dad, Shep Erhart, co-founder of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, in front of their facility in Franklin. The company was expected to move to a larger headquarters and production site in Hancock this month.

How can Maine support a larger market for sea vegetables and other algae products? A newly formed partnership between public and private sectors seeks to answer that question, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute.

MTI recently awarded the grant to form the Maine Algal Cluster Advisory Group as part of its cluster initiative program. Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, which announced the initiative Thursday, is leading the group's effort to develop an implementation roadmap within six months for growing Maine's algal industry.

Bigelow Laboratory said Maine Algal Cluster participants are from the public and private sectors and include sea vegetable and aquaculture processing businesses, nonprofit research institutions, academic institutions and economic development groups. The roadmap will include the development and promotion of a Maine Algae brand, the identification of various obstacles facing the industry and public education about algae's multiple uses.

"Maine's algal industry has huge potential," Brian Whitney, MTI's president, said in a statement provided by Bigelow. "It's all positive. Algae grow fast and are sustainable. They don't need potable water to grow. Commercial scale cultivation doesn't compete with more traditional agriculture or marine resources. Algae can be a carbon neutral source of energy, can mitigate pollution, and can be grown year round. We are pleased to offer our support to help the algal industry realize these potentials and benefit the Maine economy."

The algal industry consists of macroalgae, such as sea vegetables, and microalgae, which include seed stock, biofuels and biomass for natural pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products. One of the group's participants is Shep Erhart, president and founder of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, which has been growing sea vegetables since 1971.

Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, which was expected to move into its new Hancock headquarters this month, sells sea vegetable products through Whole Foods, Amazon, small chains, independent health food stores and its own website. As reported by Mainebiz, the company's sales have been booming.

"When we started, we never could have imagined the potential of this market. We now offer eight certified organic varieties of North Atlantic sea vegetables," Erhart said in a prepared statement. "The algal cluster has all the resources needed to conduct product research, bring products to market and educate the public about healthy products with a Maine brand. This will only help expand opportunities for all of us in the algal business here in Maine, and we are pleased to be a part of it."

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