Pictured Above: Shinnecock Kelp Farmers at the kelp hatchery. | Courtesy Shinnecock Kelp Farmers
The Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, a multi-generational, women-led non-profit, is expanding their kelp hatchery and farm in Southampton —the first Indigenous-owned and operated kelp farm on the East Coast, with the assistance of a $75,000 grant from The Nature Conservancy.
Leveraging knowledge drawn from an over 10,000-year relationship with the sea and seaweed, the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers intend to expand their hatchery so that kelp can be grown for its many ecologically restorative water-quality, habitat, and climate benefits.
“When European colonists came here, they came in winter, and they were very very cold and very very hungry and we helped them,” said Shinnecock Kelp Farmers Director Tela Troge at a May 25 presenation at the East End Food Institute in Riverhead. “We felt bad for them. They were in bad shape, and very sick. Seaweed is something we shared with them, because we used it medicinally for its health benefits, we used it for its ability to retain warmth, which we knew from our clambacks, we would line beds with seaweed to retain heat while we were baking clams. We added that to our housing — a lot of times around here, when you see houses that are being destroyed to build a brand new mansion, you see seaweed in the walls. That’s because it was used here very early on for insulation.”
For thousands of years, the Shinnecock people have relied on the water for sustenance. As real estate development and population growth rapidly increased in the region around Shinnecock Bay, water quality and biodiversity declined. Studies by The Nature Conservancy and partners found that nitrogen pollution from aging septic systems and fertilizer runoff was at the root of this decline.
Empowered by a responsibility to protect the water with which their traditions are intertwined, the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers began work on their kelp farm hatchery in 2020. By developing a business model that is Indigenous-led from “seed to sale,” the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers also hope to create and sustain green jobs that empower the Shinnecock Tribal community, help restore marine habitat and improve water quality in Shinnecock Bay and beyond.
They’ve seen some early success in restoring that ecosystem, as native marine life has begun to congregate and feed around their three kelp farm sites.
The Shinnecock Kelp Farmers have begun to sustainably harvest and dry the kelp in small batches to provide an eco-friendly alternative to conventional fertilizer. They’re hoping to make their fertilizer, which can be added to water to make a “tea” to feed your garden, available for sale at the East End Food Market on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 139 Main Road in Riverhead this summer.
“When you have accustomed yourself to things like MiracleGro — “do this and you’ll get ‘amazing’ plants” — when you go back to a more natural way, it takes more time,” said Shinnecock Kelp Farmer Donna Collins-Smith at the East End Food Institute program. “It doesn’t have anything chemically in it to rush along the process, so you have to be patient. Add it to water and let it sit.”
Ms. Collins-Smith said she wasn’t sure if kelp farming would ever be a lucrative venture, but “for me its not about making the money. It’s about cleaning the water…. I do know it replenishes back to the earth what it needs. This does not hurt anybody. It’s pure and it’s natural, but you have to be patient.”
“For years, it was projected that by 2050, our reservation would be underwater due to climate change induced sea-level rise. That timeline has since moved up to 2040. Urgent problems exist and they can no longer be ignored,” said Ms. Troge. “When we combine traditional ecological knowledge with cutting-edge science, we see leaps and bounds in what we can do. We are grateful for this support and partnership with The Nature Conservancy, and it is a promising start for what needs to be done considering the time that we have to do it.”