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New legislation will allow kelp cultivation in Peconic Estuary

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation on Dec. 7 permitting Suffolk County to lease underwater land in the Peconic Estuary for kelp and other seaweed cultivation, according to a state press release. 

The legislation will allow kelp aquaculture in 110,000 acres of underwater land in Gardiners and Peconic Bays. The land had originally been ceded to the county by the state for shellfish cultivation. 

Farmers, however, won’t be growing kelp immediately.

“Although it is good news that this bill is signed, people should understand that Suffolk County will now in effect have to set up a whole new program in order to map out and establish appropriate growing areas for kelp,” said Matt Ketcham, who owns an underwater farm in Great Peconic Bay. “This will entail years of public meetings and public comment periods. In addition to that, the [state Department of Environmental Conservation] will also have to generate new rules and regulations regarding the cultivation of kelp.”

Mr. Ketcham has been trying to expand his operation into kelp farming for years, but the “industry is relentlessly suffocated by bureaucracy” and he’s no longer eligible to participate in an existing kelp pilot program after he completed his Suffolk County lease relocation in July. 

He noted that more than 90% of oyster growers on the East End are included in the Suffolk County Aquaculture Lease Program in the Peconic Bay.

“Without any swift action from the county, our local aquaculturists will be unable to participate in this exciting new industry and expand our operations to be fruitful year round,” he said via email. “The Long Island Sound, arguably the most promising body of water for fishermen interested in kelp farming, is not included in this bill. Meanwhile, Connecticut growers across the Sound are developing markets for seaweed and related products while keeping employees busy throughout the winter months.”

Kelp, a type of cold-water seaweed, typically grows from November to May, when oysters are dormant in growth, according to Mr. Ketcham. There are already kelp farms across the northeast and Maine has a “robust seaweed farming industry,” said Pete Topping, executive director and baykeeper of Peconic Baykeepers — but New York, at the southern edge of the species’ range, has been slow to enter the trade. 

Michael Doall, an oyster farmer and kelp researcher at Stony Brook University, said the crop hasn’t been commercially farmed in New York yet. But the industry has, in recent years, proven successful in other northern states like Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“There’s enough people doing it and there’s enough businesses forming that they must be making money, is my view there,” he said. “Most northeast states have kelp farming now, so New York is very behind.” 

Mr. Topping said kelp farming can help shellfish farmers diversify their crops. But the reason he finds the newly passed bill to be a big deal, along with other environmentalists, is because the industry can help improve water quality.

Kelp grows in the winter, when shellfish are dormant, absorbing nutrients — including nitrogen, which is “enemy number one behind the harmful algal blooms,” Mr. Topping said — and taking carbon dioxide out of the water through photosynthesis, boosting pH levels. 

“One of the biggest water quality issues facing Long Island and facing coastal communities around the world is too much nitrogen getting dumped into the local waters. And when you have too much nitrogen dumped in the waters, that can fuel harmful algae blooms,” Mr. Doall said. 

Algal blooms shade out light, killing off species such as eelgrass, and when the blooms die, their decomposition causes hypoxia — a depletion of oxygen in the water that can lead to fish die-offs.

A recent water quality report from Stony Brook University scientist Chris Gobler found that every major bay and estuary on Long Island suffered low oxygen and harmful algae blooms this summer in a “dual assault of climate change and excessive nitrogen loading.” The conditions have become a “new normal,” according to the report.

Ocean acidification, which is also a problem facing Long Island waters, is harmful for marine animals that form shells, such as oysters, clams, scallops and mussels. “When they’re really little, small changes in the pH in the water can cause the shell to dissolve,” Mr. Doall said. In turn, that can cause die-offs. “Having kelp growing, especially in the vicinity of shellfish, like in an oyster farm, it creates what’s called a halo effect, where it kind of creates a pH buffer around that localized area,” Mr. Topping explained. “And actually, you know, helps those shellfish with shell growth. And then in the spring, the seaweed can be harvested.”

The kelp is also a “non-fed crop.” They require zero input, Mr. Doall said — no feeding, no pesticides, nothing added.

“What I really love about this restorative aquaculture — it’s a win-win,” he added. “Not only is it something that’s good for the environment, it’s something that’s economically good, so people can make a living and create jobs.”

Kelp farming is also a cultural win for Long Island, he said. A native Long Islander, Mr. Doall grew up on the South Shore in the 1970s. He remembers the hey-day of the clam industry. Restorative aquaculture can help bring some of that heritage back.

“Long Island, we’re surrounded by water and we have a really rich maritime heritage going back for centuries,” he said. “A lot of that has, over time, been decreasing — there’s less and less of a connection with the water as fisheries decrease and aquaculture kind of brings that maritime heritage back. This is my personal opinion.”

Although the newly passed bill from Gov. Hochul is a “very positive” and necessary first step for the industry, Mr. Doall wants to be clear — it specifically only authorizes kelp farming in the Suffolk County Aquaculture Leasing Program in the Peconic Estuary. 

“It’s often been said and billed as, no pun intended, but as legalizing kelp in New York,” he said. “Not really the case. It’s specifically for the Suffolk County Aquaculture Leasing Program in the Peconic Estuary.”

The underwater land ceded from the state to Suffolk County for the leasing program was originally for shellfish aquaculture only, he emphasized. “It didn’t include [kelp] aquaculture. That’s why the law had to be changed,” he said.

One of the reasons the commercial kelp industry has yet to emerge in New York is because there is no regulatory structure in place from the DEC yet. 

“They’re in the process of doing that, and trying to get the regulatory structure in place, and people are already starting to submit permits,” Mr. Doall said. He doesn’t think kelp farming will happen this year, but there’s a possibility Long Island will see commercial kelp farms next year. 

Now, it’s up to the county to figure out how to manage the program. The bill says Suffolk County must establish leasing maps for kelp that don’t conflict with other uses. 

“I’m hoping there’s changes made that simplify it and they just basically say, hey the shellfish cultivation zone is now also a shellfish plus kelp cultivation zone. But the way I’m reading the bill right now, they’re going to have to … make new maps for kelp and that could be a lengthy process,” Mr. Doall said. 

He added that he’s concerned it will take a long time to happen. Mr. Ketcham echoed a similar sentiment.

“Industry leaders are willing to put in the time, money and effort while using their knowledge, equipment, and skills to further develop this industry. We just need the opportunity. Unfortunately that requires a lot more paperwork,” he said.