Kelp, a slippery seaweed, could be major moneymaker

Sugar kelp is grown vertically off ropes that float horizontally across bay waters. (Credit: Bren Smith)
Sugar kelp is grown vertically off ropes that float horizontally across bay waters. (Credit: Bren Smith)

Environmental benefits to be had

“The darker the color, the more nitrogen [the kelp] is soaking up,” said Bren Smith, a Connecticut kelp farmer who grows his product in Long Island Sound waters and is banking on the sugar kelp industry to take off. A vocal advocate of kelp’s growth potential, Mr. Smith owns Thimble Island Oysters and — as Ms. Rivara hopes to do — grows his shellfish and kelp within a single ecosystem.

And it just so happens that the darker the kelp’s color, the richer and sweeter its flavor, said University of Connecticut professor Charlie Yarish, who has been studying seaweed cultivation for several decades.

“It is really a way of restoring the environment while making a product we can eat,” he said.

Sugar kelp is produced when reproductive cells, known as spores, are collected from kelp already occurring naturally in local waters, Mr. Yarish explained.

The cells are retrieved from the leafy greens in a lab and settled on a string where they continue to reproduce, essentially growing off the string. The string is then wrapped around a rope and submerged horizontally across bay waters, where the kelp continues to grow by feeding on nitrogen already abundant in Peconic Bay and Sound waters.

“The kelp starts to grow vertically, and it grows very quickly, as soon as the water drops below 50 degrees,” said Mr. Smith, who uses this exact process.

In December, January and February, kelp grows rapidly, sucking up nitrogen before phytoplankton — which multiply in warmer waters, eventually causing algal blooms — can begin feeding on it, Mr. Yarish said.

He said he developed the cultivation process with financial support from the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program and has passed his knowledge on to growers like Mr. Smith.

He hopes to one day mentor New York cultivators as well.