Ankle deep in a thick mat of
rockweed, the brisk January air still heavy with the aroma of low
tide, Nic Blouin is checking temperature sensors among the rocky crags
and crevasses of Acadia National Park's scenic Schoodic Point. A
doctoral student in the University of Maine's School of Marine
Sciences, Blouin's research is focused on the reproductive biology of
the red alga Porphyra umbilicalis, known as nori to the sea vegetable
gourmand. While his research speaks to some of the most basic
questions in marine biology, Blouin is doing much more than simply
peeking into the sex life of marine algae. He's working to change how
Americans look at food.
"You can use this one in a lot of different
dishes: bruschetta, spanakopita, roasted potatoes," Blouin says of a
reddish-brown blade of rather nondescript algae. "I like to dry it and
use it as a seasoning."
Working with UMaine marine sciences professor Susan Brawley, Blouin is
taking a multifaceted approach to studying nori, combining cutting-edge
laboratory research with hands-on field trials that he hopes will
jump-start a new economic engine in Maine: sea vegetable aquaculture.
The idea of using Maine's marine macroalgae as
food is nothing new. The harvest of Irish moss for use as a thickening
agent was once an important source of supplemental income for Maine
fishermen, and several of the state's native algae have been marketed in
various forms for decades. One Maine company, Maine Coast Sea
Vegetables, has been in operation since the 1970s. But on a larger
scale, Maine's potential as a provider of sea vegetables has remained
largely untapped, due at least in part to the average American's lack of
familiarity with the ocean garden.
"(Sea vegetable) aquaculture is a $6 billion
industry worldwide. Nori alone is nearly $2 billion of that, and that
comes entirely from Asia. Nori and other algae are high in protein.
They're also a source of vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. They're a
very healthful food; we're just not used to eating them. Because there
are so few people working on this in the U.S., and because there is so
little known about its basic biology, you have to spread yourself around
a little bit," says Blouin, whose lab and field commitments combine to
create a very demanding schedule. "I have projects going on both sides —
in basic research and in economic development."
As part of his thesis, Blouin worked to develop reliable techniques for
cultivating P. umbilicalis commercially. With funding from Maine Sea
Grant, Maine Technology Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, Blouin developed methods for using dried material briefly
reimmersed in seawater to create a special brew of reproductive spores
for seeding the polyethylene nets used for growing the nori.
After being thoroughly soaked with the
reproductive "tea," the nets were set out in a custom-made, 24-foot-long
raceway, where the growing conditions are optimized for the young
plants. By managing temperature, circulation, drying intervals and
nutrient inputs, Blouin gathered the initial data that could provide the
foundation for large-scale cultivation of native nori in Maine waters.
"A lot of what we are doing with P. umbilicalis involves adaptations of other technologies, bringing them
together in one uniform way," says Blouin. "The idea is to streamline
the process so that we can transfer that technology to future (sea
A native of the North Atlantic, P. umbilicalis has a potential advantage
over Pacific species of nori, such as P. yezoensis, used in Asia's
large-scale aquaculture operations. Porphyra umbilicalis reproduces
exclusively asexually along the Northeast coast. Currently, commercial
nori farmers spend more than half of the yearlong growing season
coddling the tiny, inedible filamentous phase of the alga's complicated
life cycle. In China, Japan and South Korea, gigantic warehouses shelter
shallow tanks filled with billions of clamshells, each tinted with the
pink stain of nori in its filamentous state. P. umbilicalis produces
asexual spores that begin as tiny versions of the adult blade,
effectively pressing fast-forward on the algae's life cycle.
By utilizing the asexual P. umbilicalis, Maine
nori farmers could bypass the expensive, time-consuming filamentous
phase, speeding production, eliminating seasonality and reducing
The cultivation of nori and other marine algae
could prove to be the perfect complement for other forms of aquacultural
enterprise. Preliminary studies conducted by Blouin near salmon pens in
Cobscook Bay suggest that net-grown nori could be incorporated into
multicrop aquaculture. Dubbed Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA),
this approach to ocean farming is critical to the development of stable
and sustainable food production in the Earth's oceans.
In Cobscook Bay, Blouin is measuring the
degree to which nori nets and finfish aquaculture might complement one
another. Effective IMTA methods promise not only additional economic
returns, but substantial environmental benefits as well, potentially
minimizing nutrient inputs while maintaining marine ecosystems.
Blouin's doctoral research now focuses on unraveling the mysteries of
reproduction in this red alga at the genetic level. Mortar and pestle in
hand, he grinds samples of P. umbilicalis and extracts the genetic
material using targeted viruses, creating a library of nori RNA. Then he
identifies and sequences unique genes to determine the genetic controls
for sexual and asexual reproduction in the genus.
Identifying the genetic triggers for asexual
reproduction in P. umbilicalis may provide important insights into
similar mechanisms in other species, offering researchers better
understanding of the evolution of sex and greater control over the
cultivation of sea vegetable varieties chosen for size, speed of growth,
flavor or other traits.
"There's no seasonality: P. umbilicalis is
present year-round in the Northeast," says Blouin. "If we can build an
understanding of what triggers its asexual versus sexual reproduction,
we may be able to get at those triggers in related species. We might be
able to trigger asexual reproduction in P. amplissima, another local
species that can grow a blade that is almost a meter long. It's another Porphyra species that would make a great candidate for aquaculture."
Blouin and Brawley see tremendous potential in expanding sea vegetable
aquaculture in North America. From speaking at conferences and forums to
helping organize the highly successful Sea Vegetable Celebration Day on
the UMaine campus, Blouin and Brawley are not only in the lab, they are
in the trenches, bringing sea vegetable aquaculture innovation to the
surface. So far, average Americans have been slow to embrace the idea of
getting veggies from the sea, but they're coming around.
"Aquaculture has been undersupported in this
country, especially sea vegetable aquaculture. In contrast, Asian
governments have invested huge amounts in support of aquaculture," says
Brawley. "We have an opportunity now, because of the growth of finfish
aquaculture, to develop ways to combine the two — a good thing, both
commercially and for the environment."
From sushi bars to snack foods, products
containing farmed sea vegetables are slowly growing in popularity in the
U.S. For now, Blouin and Brawley plan to continue down the path they
started, doing basic research and market development to find new ways to
make sea vegetable aquaculture a viable enterprise in the U.S.
by David Munson
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.