top of page

Ocean Farmers Grow Kelp off Long Island to Combat Climate Change

LEYLA DOSS, HOST: Seaweed has been harvested for thousands of years by indigenous communities. Now there’s renewed interest in growing these coastal crops on a larger scale. As Arcelia Martin reports, Long Island ocean farmers and entrepreneurs are turning to kelp in an effort to combat climate change.

ARCELIA MARTIN, BYLINE: A few years ago, “Kelp is the New Kale,” was printed across headlines and t-shirts. Farmers and chefs were getting big name press because the seaweed was supposed to be the new it-food. But the guy who helped popularize that slogan, is taking it back.

BREN SMITH: I used to say kelp is the new kale and I was wrong. It's something else. I think it's something more powerful. It’s more sort of in tune with this new era of climate change and climate solutions.

MARTIN: That’s Bren Smith. He’s the founder of Greenwave, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable ocean farming. For Smith and other ocean conservationists, kelp *is* more than a trendy green. It’s the future of farming.

SMITH: Kelp is is something that we can use in this moment to help address climate change, create jobs and feed the planet like you don't have to pick.

MARTIN: Around the globe, seaweed farms are rapidly expanding and the US is starting to catch up. There are operations across California, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New England.

Farmers on Long Island are using recently developed sustainable ocean farming techniques. Three years ago, Stony Brook University scientists wanted to see if kelp could be grown in shallow coastal waters off Long Island.

So they gave Paul McCormick a call, who owns Great Gun Oyster Farm on Moriches Bay, on the south shore of Long Island. McCormick was intrigued.. He had heard about kelp and knew it could grow during the winter season. Months he can’t grow oysters.

So with the help of the scientists, he planted his first lines of kelp out on his farm. It’s 3 acres and the water is shallow. It gets to be only about four feet deep. There’s a yellow buoy rocking with the water. You can see a pair of large homes with white trim across the bay.

To set up the lines of kelp, they hand screw two anchors into the sediment. Each 100 feet apart from each other in the water. And then they stretch a rope across those two anchor points really tight.

PAUL MCCORMICK: And then the seed spools will come out. That's very thin line. That's wrapped around a tube of PVC tube, kind of like it looks like a toilet paper almost.

MARTIN: They pull the tube along and the seed will unravel right onto the tightly pulled line.

Then they wait.

MCCORMICK: The plant just takes off by the time March hits. It's it's like exponential growth. It's amazing.

MARTIN: On a windy day last April, Stony Brook scientist Michael Doall went to check McCormick’s kelp lines.

DOALL: Alright let’s just look down the line here. Hold it up again, Annie. Look at this, wow.

MARTIN: His daughter Annie is helping, standing waist-deep, wearing a sleeveless black wetsuit over a white hoodie.

DOALL: Wow. Look at that. Woah! Wow. It’s going out this way. So yeah we’ve got serious amounts of kelp here.

MARTIN: On McCormick’s farm they’re growing sugar kelp, or saccharina latissima. The kelp looks like -- shiny brown lasagna noodles. It’s salty, rich and slightly nutty.

MCCORMICK: When I first ate the kelp I thought this is probably the most delicious vegetable I've ever eaten, not just in terms of taste, but in terms of texture and just the way it felt in your mouth. And it's remarkable stuff. It really is. It’s incredible.

MARTIN: McCormick has already gotten calls from restaurants who want to buy a few pounds of kelp for their kitchen. But McCormick said his small operation could grow 100,000 pounds of wet seaweed.

SEAN BARRETT: There's really the three big FS in in kelp farming: food, fertilizer and fuel.

MARTIN: That’s Sean Barrett, a lifelong fisherman from Long Island. This year he launched Montauk Seaweed Supply, a kelp and seaweed fertilizer company. Barrett says using seaweed as fertilizer can undo some of the environmental damage brought on by conventional landscaping and farming.

Everywhere Barrett looks out on Long Island, he sees synthetic fertilizers.

BARRETT: lawns, golf courses, certain forms of agriculture, vineyards, municipalities, universities, anywhere you look to see green and landscaped, there's most likely some type of synthetic fertilizer being used.

MARTIN: And because of how Long Island is set up, the runoff from the landscaping and septic systems gets into the water, creating a harmful surplus of nitrogen.

BARRETT: That's creating hypoxic events, algal blooms, fish die offs.

MARTIN: Kelp is rich in nitrogen that it draws from the sea water itself--in the process reducing the overall levels brought on by the runoff. So when kelp is used in fertilizers, plants get the nitrogen they need to grow, and the level of nitrogen in the water could remain steady..

Barrett says it may be possible to smoothly shift agriculture and landscaping industries from using synthetic fertilizers to utilizing organic ones like those based on kelp.

BARRETT: The best case scenario is almost just like a magic trick where you like, boom, pull out the bad, push in the good and then and the gears just keep turning. And everyone's like, what just happened there? You're kind of like. Nothing really, but really huge, what just happened there, you know, so that's the whole kind of art and science that we're trying to pull off here.

MARTIN: Many challenges in manufacturing and marketing need to be addressed before they can pull of that trick. But the demand is already growing.

Smith and his Greenwave team are teaching farmers how to grow kelp. He says there are more people interested in learning the techniques than they can keep up with.

SMITH: We have a waiting list for a training program of eight thousand people in the US. just in the US and we have requests to start farms in a hundred and ten countries, like it's insane.

MARTIN: Greenwave plans to train and support 10,000 local ocean farmers to grow kelp over the next decade.

SMITH: We're part of this moment, of this long history of not growing fish, but of growing things that actually breathe life back into the ocean.

MARTIN: But before kelp can be sold commercially at scale, one legal hurdle remains-- getting the official greenlight from the state. Farmers like McCormick already have permits to grow and sell oysters and mussels. But seaweed isn’t on that list.

A bill now in the state senate’s environmental conservation committee, nicknamed the “Kelp Bill,” would add seaweed to the existing statute that allows for shellfish farming.

Arcelia Martin, Columbia Radio News.


bottom of page