Kelp Is on the Way

Kelp Is on the Way

Kelp salad, kelp jerky, kelp noodles, kelp sautéed in butter and garlic.

All may be coming soon to a plate near you, with Greenwave of New Haven leading the charge. In its small hatchery along the Quinnipiac River, filtered sea water is bubbling in 20 small aquarium tanks holding spools about the size of your forearm. Each spool is wrapped tightly with 200 feet of string seeded with the spores of mature kelp plants collected from the ocean floor. Those spores are growing into tiny, hairlike strands of kelp. When they’re big enough—about six weeks old and one to two millimeters long—they’ll be transported to one of several kelp farms Greenwave has helped to start or to one of the company’s research partners, including University of Connecticut professor Charles Yarish, whose “internationally known laboratory for seaweed R&D,” as the UConn website describes it, has been crucial to enacting Greenwave’s vision.

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Under a microscope, a three-week-old kelp sporophyte looks like an elongated mass of cells. At four weeks, it has grown much wider and longer, and it’s possible to see it with the naked eye. There’s a small window of opportunity for planting kelp, when the water is cold enough but the air is not too cold. “Kelp is a cold water species,” hatchery scientist Ashley Hamilton explains. “It’s just the baby, tiny blades that can’t handle the harsh environment. So, once you get it out in the right temperature… it will be okay.” This kelp will spend the winter growing and be ready for harvest in late May and June.

Greenwave is the brainchild of New Haven’s Bren Smith, a traditional fisherman who saw what overfishing was doing to the ocean and was inspired to take action. His quest to find a more sustainable model of aquafarming led to what he calls “3D ocean farming.” Smith’s aquafarm, Thimble Island Ocean Farm, is located offshore among the Thimble Islands, but his ultimate vision—and Greenwave’s—is a nationwide network of “reefs” each made of about 25 3D ocean farms clustered around their own seafood hub and hatchery. Kelp is just one of the crops in a 3D ocean farm, a polyculture system that might also include scallops, oysters, mussels and clams being farmed together in one 20-acre ocean “plot” that uses the entire water column, not just the ocean bed.

“Greenwave’s goal is to really make this replicable for the average ocean farmer,” Hamilton says. So far, Greenwave has trained and supports about 18 aquafarmers in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts through a farmer-in-training program that teaches them about site selection, permitting, seeding and harvesting. Farmers are then given seed stock in their first few years, using wild kelp harvested from an area near their farm.

At seeding time, kelp farmers thread a line through a spool from the hatchery. The spooled string covered with tiny kelp blades is slowly unwound, then submerged about one meter beneath the ocean’s surface to grow. There the kelp will get some sunlight—but not too much. In the spring, that line will be the top edge of a curtain of fully grown kelp.

An attitude of cooperation rather than competition is at the root of Greenwave’s mission to get kelp farming up and running in southern New England. The team also includes a California reef manager working out partnerships and the permitting process in the west. Trial and error are a big part of this nascent business. Hatchery manager Michelle Stephens runs through some of the questions at hand: How many spools can fit into a tank before there’s a decrease in production? Will the process work the same if it’s scaled up? Where can more cost-effective nutrients for the kelp be found? “Right now I think the seed is probably what’s limiting farmers… getting as many lines as they want out there,” says Jill Pegnataro, farm manager and hatchery technician. “So, it’s about having more hatcheries, more buyers in the area, and hopefully that will help farmers be sustainable.” Currently there are just a handful of hatcheries on the East Coast.

The beauty of growing kelp is that it has the potential to make a huge positive impact on the ocean, Pegnataro says. Kelp absorbs carbon and nitrogen, decreasing ocean acidification and recapturing nitrogen runoff from land farms, which can be replaced by using kelp itself as fertilizer. “Being able to grow something that is able to absorb carbon and nitrogen but also be sustainable and healthy with vitamins and minerals for people to eat is just a win-win,” Pegnataro says.

Getting people to eat kelp in the United States is part of the challenge. “People haven’t been like, ‘I need more kelp!’” Stephens admits, adding, “We’re here to say, ‘Look at this. This is awesome!’” In addition to helping new farmers set up shop, Greenwave is working toward creating a bigger market for the crop. One method: partnering with restaurants eager to add kelp to their menus.

In addition to its dietary benefits, kelp is used in beauty products, pharmaceuticals and fertilizer. Pegnataro says it also has potential as feed for animals and as biofuel. Three billion people worldwide rely on marine species for their livelihood and a large portion of their diet, according to David Henry, Greenwave’s development manager. He cites a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that points to the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” according to an IPCC press release.

That’s a tall order. But as Hamilton, Stephens and Pegnataro stand among the hatchery’s brightly lit tanks and reflect on their work, their optimism shines through. And then they all pull on their gloves and get back to work.

Visits possible by appointment.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 depicts Ashley Hamilton, Michelle Stephens and Jill Pegnataro.

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