The Sea Farming Sisters in Recovery

How one enterprising Mainer is harvesting a new cash crop — and building a powerful support network for women who need it most.

The Sea Farming Sisters in Recovery

The Linda Kate pulls up to Falmouth Town Landing, lobster traps stacked high in the stern and two yellow dogs on deck, tails wagging. She towers over most other fishing boats in the harbor, the gunwales above eye level as Colleen hops down onto the dock. The ocean temperature is in the low 50s, and when the wind blows, the cold cuts through polar fleece.

Three women join Colleen and her husband, Brent, aboard the Linda Kate. They show up in jeans and sweatpants but change into oversized Grundéns overalls and boots. All hands are clad in bulky orange fishing gloves, and all eyes are on Colleen. These women are all in recovery, and they are working together on a boat for the first time today.

Aboard the Linda Kate.

For many, Maine is “Vacationland,” the state’s slogan as advertised on road signs and license plates. Maine means hiking in Acadia National Park; rocky, foggy coastlines dotted with lighthouses; and of course, lobster rolls. Lobstering in Maine is a $1 billion industry, but it’s also one under threat, as the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Lobster fisheries in nearby Rhode Island and Massachusetts have been decimated, and as the ocean changes, fishers here are looking to diversify their businesses. Some, like Colleen, are even becoming farmers. Kelp farmers.

Colleen grew up surrounded by fisheries on Cape Cod. Her family had a few lobster traps, and her first job, at about age 14, was working at a local fish market. But after graduating high school in 2004, she set out on a very different path, moving to Maine to attend the Maine College of Art. She left after a few semesters and started working on a mussel farm with Tollef Olson, and then helped Olson build Maine’s first kelp farm. After that, she dreamed about starting a kelp farm of her own.

“I liked the idea of getting back into kelp farming, and away from lobstering, because … I question the sustainability of Maine’s lobster industry long-term,” Colleen says. “Farming is a great way to clean up and give back to our environment.”

Pulling a kelp line from the sea farm.

In the last few years, the number of seaweed farmers in Maine has mushroomed, with 147 small site permits granted in 2019, more than five times the figure in 2014. Sea farms here mostly grow sugar kelp, which is used in food products from seaweed salads to smoothies, and by restaurants in New York, Boston and Portland, where local eateries had their first Seaweed Week this year.

After obtaining a lease through the Maine Department of Marine Resources, kelp farmers venture out in freezing temperatures in October and November to wrap what looks like dental floss around a 1,000-foot rope and secure it to anchors in the icy sea. On the flosslike line are almost-microscopic kelp plants, which will grow to about 10 feet over the winter.

Kelp is a zero-input crop, and as long as it has sunlight, it will grow — while releasing oxygen into the surrounding water. In late April or May, after it has been underwater for about seven months, farmers harvest the kelp. They are required to have all of their gear out of the water by June for the start of the lobstering and recreational boating season.

Lines of kelp underwater just before being harvested.

Although she had long wanted to start her own sea farm, Colleen didn’t fulfill this dream until after she entered recovery for alcohol in 2016. She has now been sober for three years, and she credits a supportive group of women for helping her through the process. This is where she got the idea for Salt Sistersa project that supports local women in recovery who want to work alongside Colleen on her kelp farm.

“The concept behind Salt Sisters and getting women in recovery out on the water comes from my personal experience,” Colleen says. “Working outside, in nature, and having the responsibility of them nurturing and caring for something as it grows is an experience that I believe can positively impact the lives of women looking for a new perspective.”

Women standing on the stern of the Linda Kate on their way out to the kelp farm. The group is made up of women who are supporting each other through recovery.

Colleen adds that “the importance of a supportive community in the recovery process is that it gives you an opportunity to receive perspective from another individual outside of [yourself]. That creates opportunity to learn and grow.”

Colleen plans on having two or three Salt Sisters helping out with the kelp farm at a time, in paid part-time positions, largely on a rotational basis throughout the season.

Word has traveled quickly, and she says there is more demand than spots available.

The Salt Sisters talk before the harvest.

Be Aguilo originally heard about Salt Sisters from a friend of a friend. “I was really intrigued,” she says. “Then [I saw] a girl with a Salt Sisters bag…and I just ran up to her, and I was like, ‘Are you the person that I’m looking for?’”

It was not Colleen, but the woman gave Aguilo Colleen’s number. Aguilo connected with Colleen and went for a walk with her around Mackworth Island. They talked about Salt Sisters, and Aguilo excitedly signed on for the harvest this spring.

“Colleen is the future of kelp farming,” says Todd Jagoutz, co-founder of Sea Greens Farms, which buys kelp from Colleen. “She is a commercial fisherman, which is a very difficult way to make a life, period. But add in the fact that it’s a male-dominated industry, and that makes it even more difficult. She has persevered and made a life out of working on the water. She’s young. She’s intelligent. She’s hardworking. And she isn’t pretend. That is the future of kelp farming — it is a younger generation, it spans both men and women, and it is an alternative to your traditional way of making a living on the water.”

Sorting through harvested kelp, making sure it’s high-quality and removing the bad parts.

The sea farm doesn’t look much like a farm from the surface. It’s mostly just a few white buoys bobbing in a cove near the power plant on Cousins Island. “SEA FARM” is stenciled in black on the buoys, but apart from that there are few hints at what lies beneath the surface.

Aboard the Linda Kate, the wind increases, and Colleen and Brent pull the stenciled Sea Farm buoys from the water. The boat is soon decorated by a rope of kelp that spans its entire 50-feet and every inch of the gunwales. Colleen pulls up a piece of curly kelp, her eyes and braids matching its golden hue as she beams ear to ear.

Pulling a line of kelp from the water to be harvested.

“Building the farms, on paper and now in real life … has been tremendous with regards to my own recovery from alcohol,” she says. “A large part of my recovery has to do with managing my negative self-doubt and finding a positive way to build my self-esteem. Working through a long-term project slowly and methodically and embracing all of the good and bad through that process has certainly helped me feel a more secure sense of self as an individual and surely more empowered as a female.”

Colleen says she hopes the work will be a helpful experience for the other women she brings onboard as well.

“Colleen wants to create a part-time job but also get you working with other women who are in recovery — people with different lengths of sobriety,” says Aguilo. “Someone who is really new is probably going to be struggling a lot, as opposed to someone who has a few years [of sobriety]. Maybe if we are connected by working together, maybe that element brings us together in a different way.”

Cutting kelp from the line.

Colleen is at ease on the water; she lights up when she talks about anything fishing- or ocean-related, including kelp. She patiently explains each step as she teaches the women everything from how to be safe on a rocking boat to how to properly tie a cleat. Finally, she hands out serrated butter knives with colorful handles and demonstrates how to cut the kelp from the line overhead and toss big, wet armfuls into giant, black bins. It’s harder than she makes it look.

The women bring in 2,000 pounds of sugar kelp during the first 12-hour day, harvesting a single 1,000-foot line as a test. “It was exciting, an adventure,” says Aguilo, who spent the entire day on the water. “I had never done anything like that before. This is just the first year, and I think it has the potential to impact the community in a really cool way.”

This fall, the farm will scale up and seed 15,000 feet of line in a 10-acre plot of sea.

Pulling the kelp from the water onto the Linda Kate.
The Salt Sisters working together to harvest kelp from a 1,000-foot line.

In addition to the women on the boat who are being helped directly, Jagoutz believes that “the social impact Colleen is going to make is massive. It’s motivating other women to go for a profession they maybe haven’t thought of. And beyond women, it’s a story everybody can latch onto. Everyone has been impacted by addiction — whether it’s themselves, a family member, a friend. She’s taking the risk, scaling a farm and saying, ‘I’m all in.’ And that oftentimes is all the motivation that other people need to take the same or similar risk.”

For Colleen, the farm is about believing in herself and giving others a reason to do the same. When she’s not out at sea, Colleen has started painting again. “Painting is another area of my life where I struggle with self-doubt,” she says. “So I am pushing myself to keep making art, to help squelch that negative internal voice that tells me, ‘Stop, give up, you’re not good enough.’”

As for her farm: “I think that if I can pull it off, it has the potential to show other women that you can chase after your dreams,” she says. “No matter what they may be. Even if it’s a kelp farm.”

Cutting kelp from the line.