Kelp Farmers Get A Big Surprise

Pictured Above: Stony Brook University scientist Mike Doall and oyster farmer Paul McCormick with kelp grown on the Great Gunn oyster farm this spring.

Since the first pilot projects explored the idea of growing sugar kelp in Long Island waters in 2017, there has been an explosion of interest in this crop, a gourmet food whose uses are just beginning to be explored here.

This past winter, aquaculturists and marine scientists from Stony Brook University teamed up to see if they could grow sugar kelp in Long Island’s shallow south shore estuaries.

The results have been astounding, and could signify a breakthrough that could unlock a wealth of economic and environmental opportunities, say the researchers.

A collaborative team including marine scientists at Stony Brook University, 3D ocean farming innovators at the non-profit organization GreenWave, local seafood industry pioneers Dock to Dish and Haskell Seafood, and several Long Island oyster farmers, have teamed up on a grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute to bring this crop to Long Island. 

The team deployed commercial-style lines of kelp on oyster farms in three Long Island estuaries, including Great Gun Oyster Farm in Moriches Bay, East End Oysters in the Long Island Sound, and a Town of Islip aquaculture lease in the Great South Bay.

In just three months, kelp blades have grown to over four feet at the Moriches Bay site, outpacing every known kelp farm in New York and Connecticut.

What makes the study particularly interesting is the site where kelp has grown the best.  Previously, the conventional wisdom among aquaculturists was that kelp farming needed to be done in water deeper than 20 feet, so that the kelp blades do not touch the bottom. Many of the existing oyster farms on Long Island are in shallow water estuaries, particularly on the south shore, which researchers had feared would make them a less than ideal fit for kelp production.

But, to the research team’s surprise, kelp has grown the best at the shallowest site, in Moriches Bay, where low tide water depths can be just a foot. Despite this, the kelp has grown from seed to over four feet in length with the kelp blades clean and intact, free of fouling, tears, or damage.

“It’s astonishing to see how fast this beautiful plant grows,” says Paul McCormick, owner of Great Gun Oyster Farm in Moriches Bay and one of the study’s collaborating farmers. “It’s a low-maintenance crop that grows in the dead of winter, so it fits in perfectly with the cycle of my farm, offering additional income during a tough time of the year. I’m definitely interested in incorporating kelp on the farm.”

“The implications of our study for Long Island oyster farmers are very exciting”, says project co-leader Michael Doall, a marine restoration and aquaculture specialist at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “Kelp farming can provide Long Island oyster farmers with a means to diversify crops, create additive revenue streams, and further contribute to the sustainability and health of Long Island’s estuaries through restorative aquaculture.”

“Being able to grow sugar kelp in shallow water is only the first part of the story,” added Mr. Doall. “Sugar kelp will only be a viable crop on Long Island if there’s a market for it and if it can be profitable. In the next phase of our study, we will be engaging local chefs, restauranteurs, and other food industry professionals to evaluate market acceptance and demand for Long Island farmed kelp. Our early results indicate strong interest from the foodie community.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County has already made inroads in this area, after a pilot project in 2017 that enlisted the help of Chef Noah Schwartz of Noah’s in Greenport and the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company in producing food and beer using just-harvested sugar kelp from a site off CCE’s marine science education center at Cedar Beach in Southold.

In addition to being laden with nutrients, kelp holds promise in improving water quality. The combined farming of kelp and oysters is recognized as “regenerative and restorative” aquaculture, because the kelp and oysters collectively sequester both nitrogen and carbon from estuaries. Kelp also produces oxygen, combats ocean acidification by removing carbon dioxide, and may even combat harmful algal blooms.

“Long Island is in a battle to improve water quality and restore its bays, harbors and estuaries,” said Dr. Christopher Gobler, a Professor of Marine Science at Stony Brook University and primary investigator of the study. “As kelp grows, it removes the things we don’t want in our waters, namely nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and provides oxygen that all marine life need to thrive. We think the aquaculture of seaweeds represents another important tool for improving water quality on Long Island.”

In addition to occurring naturally in New York waters, researchers believe sugar kelp is an ideal crop for integrating into oyster farms. It’s a cold temperature crop whose growing season is opposite that of oysters, allowing farmers to redirect labor and resources from oysters in the warm months to kelp in the cold months, and helping farmers retain good employees and bolster local economies by turning seasonal farm hands into year-round employees. Kelp can also be vertically integrated with bivalves, creating a three-dimensional polyculture farming system that does not require one crop to replace the other. This is known as a 3D ocean farming model pioneered by GreenWave, a non-profit working to catalyze farm replication and market innovation in the Northeast.

“If sugar kelp can be profitably farmed in shallow water estuaries, it would be a true a win-win proposition for Long Island, benefitting both local economies and the marine environment,” said Dr. Gobler.

Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at [email protected]m

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