February 28, 2018

The State of Kelp

A New Sea Vegetable Industry Is Poised for Growth, if These New Farmers Can Develop a Market

From Norwalk to Branford to Stonington, it’s been a waiting game for a new class of Connecticut farmers. Now that an unseasonably cold winter looks to have passed and water temperatures in Long Island Sound have rebounded to nearly the seasonal average, that wait is just about over.

At stake is a new crop of Sugar Kelp (Saccharina latissima), a type of marine algae that thrives in cold, local waters from Connecticut to Maine. While the value of the kelp is yet to be determined, these farmers are racing to establish buyers before growers in neighboring states, including Maine and Rhode Island, get to the market first.

Unlike land-based plants, Sugar Kelp is a “winter crop” that is traditionally planted in late-November and December. A first spurt of growth happens into January until water temperatures drop to near-freezing levels. By March, when more sunlight is available and the water reaches around 40-degrees F, the plants experience their second spurt of growth, which continues until harvest in late-April and throughout May.

Across the shoreline, five new farms have been permitted to grow kelp this season—quite a remarkable achievement given the complicated regulatory process and the number of federal, state, and local agencies that require review, all of which take the better part of a year. Still, this round of permitting was streamlined since the initial four kelp farms began their permit applications approximately five years ago, when kelp farming was still in the research and development phase.

JP Vellotti, general manager of East Coast Kelp Farms—one of the five new farms this year—said that while the permitting process seemed like it would never end, it was also very understandable.

“You have to realize that we are not just tilling a field that nobody really ever sees or visits. We are trying to grow a sea vegetable in the water column that has a lot of shared interests. So the public eye is on you, wondering what you are doing out there and if the gear you put into the water to grow your crop is going to take away from the way they experience using the water,” he said.

With permits now in place for farm sites in Norwalk and Groton, Vellotti also embraced the opportunity to obtain a license to grow kelp in these new waters.

“What Connecticut has done is really remarkable and I’m really proud of our state. Just as we were leaders in the very early years of oyster farming, I think in five years, people will look back to see that Connecticut will also be known as the kelp state, because we worked hard and laid the groundwork early,” said Vellotti.

Accolades for that framework fall squarely on the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s (DoAg) Bureau of Aquaculture, which identified the potential of seaweed as an opportunity for growth and worked with the state legislature to create a seaweed-licensing program.

Concurrently, with the creation of the program in 2014, agency staff have identified hazards and risks associated with harvesting, processing, and storage and developed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) standards for fresh and frozen kelp. An additional HACCP plan for dehydrated kelp is under development.

The agency has also worked with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, which requires that individual processors of seaweed first obtain a food manufacturing license. There currently are three approved processing facilities in the state with an additional facility planned before this year’s harvest season.

Adding to the complexity of the oversight is the importation of kelp grown out of state for processing and the exporting of Connecticut Grown kelp for processing in neighboring states.

In the DoAg aquaculture laboratory, work has been performed to assess potential human health impacts from the plants. This was accomplished by taking sample material from each of the existing four farm sites (Norwalk, Fairfield, and two locations in Branford). 

DoAg partnered with Connecticut Sea Grant, the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to sample the seaweed for bacterial and chemical contaminants in order to ensure that these new seaweed products are safe for consumers.  

It also turns out that kelp has other potential benefits beyond adding another product into the food stream.

“Nutrient-enriched systems can contribute to harmful algal blooms, which deplete oxygen in the water,” said Dr. Charles Yarish, a leading expert and advocate of marine algae and a professor at UConn’s Department of Marine Sciences. “Shellfish and seaweeds can provide good ecosystem services by extracting organic and inorganic nutrients from seawater.”

In a report issued this past fall, Dr. Yarish and colleagues from UConn and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Woods Hole facility, looked at how to develop an environmentally and ecologically sound sustainable Sugar Kelp industry in Southern New England. Beyond the economic factors, the team also looked at plant material to identify the amount of nitrogen and carbon kelp extracts from the water.

Using that analysis, they estimate an average farm site of 2 ½ acres could remove up to five thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide and an average of 50 kilograms of nitrogen, depending on crop spacing and management. Seasonal factors including loss of crop from ice and water temperatures also affect plant absorption of these nutrients.

And for other marine life, the addition of seaweed farms has been a boon for small fish that have found safe haven and nutrition among the newly planted kelp forests.

Simona Augyte, a UConn graduate student who works alongside Dr. Yarish, and Dave Hudson, a research scientist at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, are planning to use a series of underwater video cameras to record the interactions of these fish and the plants. Findings will be presented in research form as well as a visual display for visitors at the Maritime Center next year.

In April, the Maritime Center and UConn will host the first ever Science Salon on the topic dubbed, Kelp Confidential: Secrets of Connecticut’s Culinary Seaweed Scene. The event is open to the public and features a panel discussion while chefs will offer up sample appetizers made with locally grown kelp. For more information go to https://sciencesalon.uconn.edu.

Until then, the next two months will be a trying time for the kelp farmers in Connecticut. Because their crop went into a state of dormancy during the cold winter that saw frozen harbors statewide, there is a sense of uncertainty if the plants can rebound and finish strong. Early signs are positive, however, as the little kelp seedlings are visible and seem to be clinging on.

If a crop is successful and the farmers solve an even greater challenge—what to do with the massive amount of kelp that has yet to find a mainstream market— the outlook for Connecticut is even more positive.

Among the five new farms this year, none have planted to capacity, with most operating at thirty to 30- to 50- percent capacity. Along with the ability to double this number next year, the existing four farm sites are currently planting at 80-percent capacity.

If market sales are successful, across a range of products that extend beyond just culinary uses, the scalability of kelp growth in Connecticut could see an exponential expansion. With seven new farm sites proposed for the fall 2018, the number of Sugar Kelp farmers is expected to hit the Sweet 16 mark in just four years.