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 Francke 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 Francke and her husband, Brent Nappi, 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 Francke. These women are all in recovery, and they are working together on a boat for the first time today.
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 Francke, are even becoming farmers. Kelp farmers.
Francke 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," Francke says. "Farming is a great way to clean up and give back to our environment."
Francke pulls a kelp line from her sea farm. | (Jennifer Adler/Courtesy Narratively)
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.
Although she had long wanted to start her own sea farm, Francke 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 Sisters — a project that supports local women in recovery who want to work alongside Francke on her kelp farm.
"The concept behind Salt Sisters and getting women in recovery out on the water comes from my personal experience," Francke 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."
Francke 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."
Francke 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.
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?'"
Be Aguilo sorts through harvested kelp. She's making sure it's high-quality and removing the bad parts. | (Jennifer Adler/Courtesy Narratively)
It was not Francke, but the woman gave Aguilo Francke's number. Aguilo connected with Francke 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 Francke. "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."
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.