Seaweed on the Menu: Kelp Farmers Find Opportunity in the Peconic

Dr. Charles Yarish inspects a haul of sugar kelp. Peter Morenus / UConn photo

Mike and Isabel Osinski will be testing the waters off Greenport in a new way this fall.

In addition to tending to their oysters, the co-owners of Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm are taking their first crack at growing seaweed — specifically, sugar kelp — and expect to have their 200-foot-long growing line in the water possibly by late October.

Though they have dabbled before in wild kelp harvesting, a process that involved collecting and drying red seaweed that’s commonly found locally in the summer, their upcoming venture represents a new commitment to aquaculture as they will be actively growing what they hope will be an abundant future harvest.

“Mostly, it’s my wife who’s convinced that seaweed is the future, and has a big future,” said Osinski, noting that they secured the required Department of Environmental Conservation permit to commercially grow kelp this past spring. If all goes as planned, they could be harvesting their first crop by spring 2019.

They are able to do so, he explained, because of a unique circumstance in which they own the bay bottom that extends several hundred feet into Peconic Bay from their business. That’s why they’re able to make plans to grow their own sugar kelp even though the commercial growing and harvesting of seaweed is not yet permitted in New York State — though that could change soon due to escalating interest in both the nutritional and environmental value of kelp.

In addition to being rich in vitamins and fiber — traits that make it a popular choice for protein supplements — seaweed is similar to oysters in that it helps remove excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and carbon, from seawater, according to experts. Seaweed can also be used in the manufacture of animal feed, cosmetics and gluten-free soaps, and acts as a thickening agent in jellies, salad dressings and toothpastes.

Observing that they already sell most of their farm-raised oysters to local and New York City restaurants, Mr. Osinski thinks that dipping their toes in kelp cultivation is a natural next step for their family-run business. And they could very well be the East End’s first pioneers in kelp cultivation, an emerging “green” industry that is now blossoming just to the north of Long Island and along the West Coast.

Presently, there are approximately 50 kelp farms, varying from small “mom and pop” operations to larger ones, sited between Connecticut and Maine, most of which have been established within the past decade, according to Dr. Charles Yarish, a marine biologist with the University of Connecticut and arguably the leading expert on seaweed cultivation. Those farmers are cultivating what he describes as the next ocean crop, one that requires no irrigation or fertilizer, and benefits the ecosystem by removing excess nitrogen.

He also thinks that Long Island has what it takes to find success in kelp farming.

A Gardiner’s Bay kelp line being processed. Courtesy Cornell Cooperative Extension

“You have the population — it’s a sophisticated population — and they want good quality food,” Dr. Yarish said. “They want food that comes from sustainable sources and is traceable …

“It’s doing the ecosystem a service,” he continued, referring to kelp. “It removes nitrogen as it grows, and you’re taking the nitrogen out of the water that fuels harmful algal blooms.”

Using grant money, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County recently completed a pilot program in which scientists grew sugar kelp at six different locations between Flanders and Gardiner’s bays. Known as the “Peconic Estuary Seaweed Aquaculture Feasibility Study,” and completed last year in collaboration with the University of Connecticut, the program’s two main goals were to determine the viability of seaweed farming in East End waters and gauge the overall interest among consumers for fresh kelp.

In terms of the first goal, the Peconic Estuary can, in fact, be used to grow sugar kelp — so long as farmers set up shop in the right spot. Of the six test sites established in the estuary in September 2016, only four proved to be conducive to growing seaweed, with the one established near Long Beach in Gardiner’s Bay standing out from the field.

Of the 50 pounds of sugar kelp harvested in June 2017 at the four farms, 41 pounds was collected from the Long Beach location, according to Stephen Schott, a habitat restoration specialist with Cornell who oversaw the pilot program. The three other locations that produced smaller amounts of sugar kelp included Flanders and Noyac bays and Orient Harbor, Schott said. Kelp farms established in Great Peconic Bay, near Sebonac, and inside Cutchogue Harbor, near Nassau Point, did not generate any kelp.

“The Gardiner’s Bay site has conditions (water temperature and quality) similar to those found in Long Island Sound where kelp grows naturally, so it was not too much of a surprise that this site yielded the best results,” Schott said.

Still, he stressed that the pilot program was limited in scope and that other species of edible seaweed could possibly be grown within the estuary, including those areas that sugar kelp did not succeed. Mr. Schott said additional studies are being planned for the near future, including those focusing on the potential farming of summer seaweeds.

“Seaweed, at least sugar kelp, can be grown commercially on Long Island,” Schott said. “While the focus of this project was the Peconic Estuary, work in Connecticut has shown that kelp aquaculture is a viable industry in Long Island Sound as well.”

Dr. Yarish noted that seaweed growers in Connecticut, where it is now legal to farm kelp, are having a tough time meeting demand for their product. He and other researchers recently secured U.S. Department of Energy funding for a study focusing on the domestication of sugar kelp, explaining that a high-yielding strain could eventually allow it to be used in the manufacture of other items, including biofuel.

A 2016 World Bank report notes that the global production of seaweeds could hit 500 million tons of dry weight by 2050, assuming that farming increases by 14 percent annually. Annual global seaweed production stood at 3 million tons as of 2012, the last year data was collected by the World Bank. The global commercial seaweed market is projected to surpass $22 billion by 2024, according to another recent report by Grand View Research Inc., a California-based market research company.

The wild kelp harvested by Cornell was dried and, after being supplemented with other harvested seaweed, shared with several local vendors, including Noah’s restaurant in Greenport and the Greenport Harbor Brewery, according to Schott. Some of the kelp was also given to vendors that make dog treats and bath products, including soap.

At Noah’s, chef and owner Noah Schwartz last year served diners kelp-wrapped seared yellowfin tuna, as well as sea scallops dusted with ground roasted and dried kelp. He also used a kelp-infused olive oil to spice up his risotto and peas. Over at the brewery, Cornell’s seaweed was used to make a limited edition kelp porter.

“The dinner at Noah’s provided an opportunity to introduce the public to seaweed as food, unrelated to sushi,” said Schott, who sampled the culinary creations. “Noah created, among other great dishes, a flourless, kelp chocolate cake garnished with candied kelp.”

Chef Stephan Bogardus says he would love to incorporate locally cultivated seaweed into his dishes served at the North Fork Table in Southold once it is legal for aquaculturists to grow it in New York State.

Still, the Cutchogue native warns that not everyone will be as open to experimenting with Long Island kelp, if and when it becomes readily available, unless it hits one of three specific criteria. “It needs to be viewed as something luxurious, something that’s very healthy and nutritional for you … or something that’s extremely flavorful for it to have Main Street appeal,” he said.

Chef Bogardus wasn’t given any kelp grown by Cornell, meaning he cannot say if Long Island sown and grown seaweed possesses any of the qualities that would give it widespread appeal. What he does know is that there is plenty of interest, both in kitchens and dining rooms across the East End, in experimenting with edible seaweed’s untapped potential.

After being shut out of Cornell’s kelp, Chef Bogardus did what any creative mind would do: he improvised.

He used dried spirulina, a powder made from dried blue-green algae that is widely found in supplements, to create a coconut-spirulina emulsion that he served with his Peconic Bay scallops crudo dish last year. The emulsion, which he compared to a vinaigrette of sorts, was well-received by diners who ordered his specially prepared plate, which was served with a side of heirloom white sweet potatoes and aji lemon pepper.

“It’s not fresh seaweed, so it’s shelf-stable,” Chef Bogardus said of spirulina. “It’s a natural food … and revered as being one of the most sustainable sources of vegan protein in the world.”

The response was so strong that Chef Bogardus reached out to his local oyster supplier to ask if the farmer could grow fresh seaweed for him only to learn that it cannot yet be legally cultivated in New York. For now, those who want fresh sugar kelp must order it from out-of-state companies, including those in Maine and Connecticut.

“I haven’t had it come across my cutting board very often, and I think that’s why I haven’t really gotten excited about it,” Chef Bogardus said, referring specifically to fresh kelp. “I haven’t seen any samples personally, but I will tell you that I enjoy eating seaweed and I order it whenever I see it on the menu.”

As for Osinski, he noted that their initial start-up costs are small, meaning they could always change course if initial sugar kelp yields are lower than expected, or if demand suddenly tapers off for edible seaweed.

“The chefs that we sell to are always looking for local ingredients,” he said. “I have some guys who are always asking for unique stuff. The chefs want new stuff that’s fresh and local. They want to do something different.

“I’m not saying it’s a big thing, but it is something,” Osinski added, referring to recent interest in edible seaweeds. “You cannot get overly excited over these things.”