Kelp, a slippery seaweed, could be major moneymaker

A growing market

According to a 2010 United Nations State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, “countries in East and Southeast Asia dominate seaweed culture production (99.8 percent by quantity and 99.5 percent by value, according to 2008 data).”

China, Indonesia and the Philippines lead the way, accounting for over 85 percent of kelp production.

The U.S., however, has lagged behind, as only a handful of growers currently cultivate it nationwide and are located mostly in New England. As a result, it’s had to import nearly all of its kelp meant for human consumption.

“I know that seaweed farming in Asian countries has been prolific,” said Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), whose district spans the North Fork. “To kind of expand on that here, I think, is a great idea.”

Demand for a domestically grown product safe from contaminants is growing, Mr. Smith said. He added that his company’s 18-ton-a-year kelp yield — for which he earns about 35 cents per pound, when wet — is nowhere near filling increasing domestic demand.

Companies including Whole Foods Market are working to incorporate kelp into other products, as a way of expanding the market, Mr. Yarish said. Because kelp has a very short shelf life when gathered fresh from the sea, freezing or incorporating it into other products is a way of preserving it.

The question is, “How do we take this weird thing and get it on the kitchen table?” Mr. Smith said. “How can we make kelp the new kale, which is now on every restaurant menu?”

Sugar kelp is rich in calcium, folic acid and vitamins A, B, D, E and K, according to multiple research studies. As a result, it’s been touted by many health food outlets as the next “superfood.”

Because of this, it has potential not only for the dinner table but also in pharmaceutical and cosmetic markets.

It’s also high in iodine, which is commonly used in supplements given to people with thyroid problems, according to New York University hospital researchers.

Kelp extract is also added to skin care products, helping to give the appearance of firmer skin.

And because it sucks up all that nitrogen, it can also be used as a natural fertilizer, Mr. Yarish said.

Mr. Smith said he hopes land farmers will consider using the seaweed as fertilizer and stop using synthetic forms of nitrogen on land, which inevitably makes its way into area waters.

“We’re taking land- and sea-based farming and trying to close the nitrogen loop,” he said.