North Fork kelp could become the next big commercial crop

07/18/2016 6:00 AM |

kelp

While leafy greens like kale have become a popular snack for healthy eaters, there could soon be a new food everyone on the North Fork is buzzing about: seaweed.

A new pilot program designed by Cornell Cooperative Extension will test growing seaweed for market production in East End waters. Cornell has explored the idea of growing seaweed, which is typically called kelp, for several years. Now, it could become a reality.

“We are very excited about this project and look forward to bringing this new industry to Long Island waters,” said Chris Pickerell, marine program director at Cornell Cooperative Extension. “This project represents the first step in developing a new commodity for New York’s legacy industry of aquaculture to expand.”

Mr. Pickerell added that kelp could be a reliable crop for current and future marine farmers to grow and harvest from Suffolk County waters.

Cornell’s program, called Peconic Estuary Seaweed Aquaculture Feasibility Study, aims to evaluate how well kelp will grow here, and whether there could be a substantial market for it in Suffolk County. In 2014, County Executive Steve Bellone’s office said research had suggested farming kelp in Long Island Sound could produce annual sales of $47 million. Doing so, however, requires regulatory changes from state and county lawmakers.

Some of those changes are now in motion. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) passed in the Assembly and Senate in June. The legislation proposed amending the environmental conservation law to allow seaweed cultivation in Gardiners and Peconic bays.

Growing kelp for market production has been popular in countries like China. It was also grown successfully recently in Connecticut waters.

Mr. Pickerell said his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have been eager to help spread the practice to New York. Suffolk County already has a system in place for underwater leasing for shellfish cultivation in Peconic and Gardiners bays. Cornell’s pilot program, which is set to begin this fall, will entail the creation of five different sites for growing sugar kelp across the Peconic Estuary.

“As part of the project we want to find out where the kelp will grow the best in the estuary,” Mr. Pickerell said.

He added that the program is designed to test growing conditions during the winter. Each site will feature long ropes called dropper lines, which hang in the water to help kelp grow. Sugar kelp thrives in cooler months and is one of the most widely cultivated seaweeds in the world. It is often eaten in salads or with sushi.

“It’s a very interesting concept, what they’re doing,” said Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue). “It could have value. You really need to know if the conditions out here are going to support it.”

Mr. Pickerell said growing kelp could help enhance water quality because harvesting seaweed leads to the direct removal of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon. He said Cornell’s program, once established, will also help create new jobs.

The program will cost a little over $160,000. Around half of that amount is funded through a grant from the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program, while the remainder will be paid by Cornell, Mr. Pickerell said.

Mr. Pickerell said he hopes kelp will one day be as successful a crop as locally grown oysters. Once production begins, educational outreach efforts involving representation from three main potential industries will be conducted. A working group with representatives from the agricultural, culinary and cosmetic industries will also help identify the best ways to market kelp.

Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said his organization worked hard to get the kelp legislation passed. He said he believes conditions on the North Fork will support this type of aquaculture and provide both financial and environmental benefits.

“It works hand in hand,” he said. “Cleaning up the water and bringing money into the aquaculture community.”

Mr. Carpenter said oyster farmers have already expressed interest in growing kelp.

“We’re pretty excited about it,” he said. “We hope this is something new that agriculture can rely on going forward into the future.”

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Photo: Sugar kelp, one of the most widely cultivated seaweeds in the world, will be grown in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s pilot program. (Credit: Courtesy)

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