A new 'set it-and-forget it' crop may help LI's aqua farmers — and its bays, too

Mark Harrington for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

In the murky green shallows of Moriches Bay, Paul McCormick steps from his oyster skiff to walk in knee-deep water to a section of his aqua-farm that holds promise for a new industry on Long Island: cultivated sugar kelp.

It’s the end of April, just weeks before harvest, and the weight of the underwater line and the long, curled ribbons of green-brown kelp show it’s a bumper crop. Indeed, the growth is so strong that the Stony Brook University marine team that helped plant it and continues to monitor the lines here and in surrounding water believes it could mark a turning point in kelp cultivation. Never has kelp grown so well in such shallow water.

"It was just an incredible experience to watch this plant grow from mere millimeters when we planted it in December to nine to 12 feet in a matter of three or four months. Amazing," said McCormick, of East Moriches, who owns Great Gun Shellfish Co.

Scientists, lawmakers, oyster farmers and a new crop of seaweed marketers all are looking to experimental kelp farms that have dotted the waters around Long Island for the past three years with the hope for a new industry that could also be an important check on nitrogen and carbon dioxide impacts on local waterways. There’s much work to be done, advocates say, including passage of a recently introduced state law that would allow for kelp cultivation from Peconic and Gardiners bays, but momentum is building. Just last month, Montauk Seaweed Supply Co. launched a line of fertilizer products using kelp from other states and from wild kelp beds.

But kelp's uses, and its appeal, go far beyond the market for fertilizer, which is attractive as a sustainable method to add nutrients to gardens without trucking in industrial fertilizer from the outside. Kelp is sold to restaurants as a salad-like side dish, but it's used for other food products such as non-animal burgers; it's also used in soaps, shampoos and skin-care products, and is being explored for use in biofuels and sustainable packaging.

For McCormick and the eight other aqua-farmers who have participated in this three-year pilot study, conducted by Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, the prospect of cultivating kelp represents not just another potential revenue stream but hope for a new generation of men and women who make their living on the waters.

Kelp, a long green lasagna-like sea alga that has a certain crunch and a pleasing bittersweet taste, grows in the winter, from December to May, when oyster farming goes largely dormant. It’s relatively low cost and low maintenance, particularly in waters like Moriches Bay, where McCormick is growing long lines of kelp about 100 yards from the shore near Terrell County Park. It surrounds and may even benefit his oysters.

"It’s a crop that requires low capital input, very very minimal labor — it’s basically a set it-and-forget it crop," McCormick said. "It dovetails perfectly with activity and inactivity on the shellfish farm."

Scientists studying the prospect of kelp growing off Long Island are particularly keen to its environmental benefits. It acts as a nitrogen sink, sucking up the overabundant compound, which ecologists say sometimes causes harmful algae blooms. It also absorbs CO2 and may help address acidification in waters around Long Island.

Michael Doall, associate director for bivalve restoration at Stony Brook University's School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences, has been monitoring kelp beds such as McCormick’s for the past three years, and is finding encouraging signs. He called such operations "restorative farming.''

Kelp farming across the country, in Alaska, California and the Northeast, is chiefly done in deep water — 20 feet or more, with the kelp supported by nutrients in water and anchored, but not rooted to the sea bottom. In those farms, it can be more labor and capital intensive than in shallow farms.

Doall said he and his team were surprised by the shallow farm off Moriches, which, he said, "turns out to be our best site. The quality was great. It did tremendous." Growing in shallow water costs "a fraction of what it does in deeper water."

Kelp can grow fast — and large. "The thing about kelp is ... the incredible amount of biomass you can grow in a short amount of time," Doall said. "You can almost watch it grow."

A one-acre water lease can grow 32,000 to 72,000 pounds of kelp in a five-month season, potentially netting farmers tens of thousands of dollars a year in new revenue, Doall said.

Markets for kelp — most notably as fertilizer and food — combine to yield an average price of about $1 a pound, Doall said, and in New York, those markets are just beginning to form.

McCormick said he’s been in contact with local chefs who say they’d love to buy kelp for local dishes — at prices that start at $6 a pound.

One challenge is that newly harvested kelp has to get to market quickly because it doesn’t store well. Unless it's dried or blanched and frozen, it can deteriorate in a matter of days, losing its characteristic crunch and taste, Doall said.

Legislative hurdles

The market won’t develop until kelp passes a couple of critical hurdles, one of them legislative. Just this month, Long Island members of the state Legislature introduced an addition to an existing aquaculture bill that would pave the way for oyster farming to include kelp. Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who introduced the Senate version along with Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), said the amendment was fundamentally as simple as adding the words "and kelp" to the existing law. Potential kelp farmers and conservationists have been working with Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) on an Assembly version, which he said would be introduced this week. "I think there is great economic and environmental potential for kelp," Thiele said.

If the bill is signed into law, it will make cultivation of kelp from Suffolk County aquaculture leases in Peconic and Gardiners bays legal. Proponents hope it’s in place next year.

"There are so many environmental benefits that it makes sense to clear the way for kelp growers," Kaminsky said. "Other states are ahead of where we are in building this industry."

Imports and wild kelp

Some who see a big market for kelp and other seaweed products say there’s no need to wait for the bill passage to get the market going. Sean Barrett, a Montauk fisherman who started Dock to Dish, a Montauk community fishery organization, launched a company this month that began marketing kelp-based fertilizers under the Montauk Seaweed Supply Co. brand.

Barrett is buying his kelp not only from harvesters who are already legally cultivating and selling kelp in markets from Connecticut to Maine, but using divers to harvest wild kelp and other seaweeds from New York State waters. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, he said, is aware of his efforts.

In a statement, the DEC said it has "not participated in or assisted with determining locations for wild kelp harvest," but noted, "The harvest of wild kelp is not regulated by DEC and has not been pursued to date." The agency and local partners are "working collaboratively to identify kelp research and monitoring projects that will help [us] better understand potential impacts on New York’s marine ecosystem and marine life.".

Unlike wild kelp, the DEC does regulate cultivated kelp and other seaweeds in New York waters and requires an "on/off bottom culture permit" from the agency. The permit allows a holder to sell the cultivated products from their water farms, so long as the sale complies with state Department of Agriculture and Markets requirements that regulate food processing facilities and retail stores, DEC said.

"It’s impossible for the kelp industry to begin in New York State if you rely just on farmed kelp," Barrett said. When this year’s pilot crop is harvested, "there won’t be another lick of kelp available until [next] May, even with the most advanced storage capacity. You’ll never be able to start businesses with something with a two-week harvest window, and then nothing."

The "runway" for the industry is wild kelp, Barrett said. Wild kelp, which includes an invasive species from Japan, is available "pretty much year-round," he said, adding that hand harvesting can be beneficial to some seaweed-choked waters, and that his is done in a "very responsible" and limited way.

Not all are convinced that using wild kelp to kick start the industry is the way to go. Doall said he doesn’t support it, in part because wild kelp is in such short supply and it could disrupt wild habitat, not just for kelp but species that thrive in it.

Doall acknowledges, however, that kelp farming faces challenges, including a dearth of processors to dry or freeze the kelp to make it shelf-stable, and the limited availability of seed stock.

But the promise of kelp cultivation and its benefits for the local waters could help nudge commercial and academic funding to launch efforts to invest in seed cultivation. Christopher Gobler, chairman of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, said the pilot programs have grown kelp on 10 oyster farms over the past three years. He’s working on a kelp feasibility study "to get a sense of how this might be integrated into the Suffolk aquaculture program."

Suffolk County leases out about 780 acres of Peconic and Gardiners bay bottom, about 300 of which are actively farmed by oyster companies. In March, the county approved the rights to lease 600 more acres over the next decade.

Suffolk funded the $200,000 pilot studies under Gobler. A senior Suffolk official familiar with the program said the county is closely watching the results.

"We want to make sure before we permit widespread use that it actually grows in our waters," said the official. The county is preparing a study of the pilot program, which included five sites starting in December; four made it through the end of the growing season. "The industry wants it done yesterday," the official said.

Boating obstacles

The only potential opponents of kelp farming could be those who had a problem with floating gear in those waters. Some recreational boaters have previously sued over the issue in the Peconic. They’ve since resolved their differences, but Suffolk doesn’t want a repeat.

Kelp farming generally takes place five to six feet below the surface, usually deep enough to prevent interfering with most sailboats. Most of the farming takes place in the winter, when boating is minimal.

Doall of Stony Brook University said it’s not just recreational boaters who have issues with aquaculture. Some commercial fishermen have had issues with it, and there’s a level of not-in-my-backyard mentality from homeowners who live close to the near-shore farms.

Karen Rivara, an oyster farmer and president of Aeros Cultured Oyster Co. in Southold, participated in the pilot. Her kelp was in deeper waters of the Peconic Bay. She’s involved chiefly for environmental, not commercial, reasons, she said. Her farm was one of five that didn't last through the winter.

"I can’t have it suck money out of my company, but I’d like to be able to find a way to grow it so the focus is substantially environmental as opposed to just business," she said, noting she plans to offer it to a cousin who has a dairy farm. "If it ends up being feed for livestock I’m OK with that" given the environmental benefits.

Gobler of Stony Brook University said the ability to protect oysters could prove to be an important benefit of kelp for harvesters like Rivara.

"It may well be that this is something that keeps the oysters happy, creates this halo effect of combating acidification, they can even fight harmful alga blooms," he said. "We have data to show it can be a strong deterrent" to a bloom that occurs even in cold temperatures.

Meanwhile, harvesters and marketers like Montauk Seaweed Supply are moving ahead.

"Fast forward this time next year, with kelp farming in the Peconic and Gardiners bay legalized, I’d say you’ll see 20 or more oyster growers starting to cultivate much larger kelp spools and seed," Barrett said. "I think this is a huge, important step forward, and we’re ready to take it."