Are we in week seven of Stay-at-Home? Or is it week eight or nine? To help us keep track, we’ve started to give each week a name. This week is Kelp Week.
Kelp – that astounding sea vegetable (also known as seaweed) – is a new take on an old concept. We all know seaweed, or we think we do. It’s the greenish wet leaves that appear on the shoreline or amid the rocks: seemingly not much to see nor much to consider.
Except that seaweed (also known as kelp) is a plant of extraordinary power and potential. More than just a plant that grows in the water: kelp is a crop, kelp is a job and kelp is a nature-based solution to improving our local environment.
Kelp as a Crop.
You already eat seaweed, perhaps in sushi or occasionally as a snack, yet nearly all seaweed sold in our country is currently imported. Locally sourced seaweed is on the rise with farmed kelp increasingly on the menu and brewed in beers. The potential for kelp as a food crop is enormous, with the added benefit of key nutritional value. Additionally, kelp as a crop is widely sought after by farmers, who value the kelp for mulch, compost and animal feed.
At SoundWaters we had big plans this spring to share our harvest with local restaurants and the local brewery. Those plans got put on hold due to COVID 19, but we were able to share our crop with five local farmers who were all thrilled to experiment with the kelp. One of our farming partners, Fairgate Farm, explained that they are “thrilled to be partnering with SoundWaters on this project. Kelp is loaded with trace minerals which can often be deficient in soil, and also has amazing properties which encourages healthy, vigorous, and abundant plant growth! That’s why we’ll be working this kelp into our compost and garden beds.”
Kelp as a Job.
As kelp becomes a crop it has the potential to become a key part of the local marine economy with jobs and revenue through the colder months. In Maine, the regional leader in kelp production, the Island Institute determined that farmed kelp production could grow an average of 12% – 15% annually.
Here is in Connecticut, the industry is smaller, yet Long Island Sound is home to several kelp growers, including our technical partner, GreenWave, the nonprofit led by Bren Smith, a nationally-recognized leader dedicated to bringing the potential of kelp to reality. Kelp can be a significant economic boost by creating off-season waterfront jobs.
Kelp can improve local waters
In addition to being a crop and a job creator, kelp is a nature-based solution to one of our region’s most intractable environmental problems: dead zones in Long Island Sound.
The clearest way to follow the story from seaweed to dead zones is to follow the nitrogen. Nitrogen is a by-product of our collective lives: excess nitrogen flows into the Sound from sites ranging from suburban lawns to leaky septic systems to flawed sewage treatment plants. Too much nitrogen leads to an overgrowth of algae. Once that algae decomposes, it sucks the oxygen out of the water. Too little oxygen leads to… dead zones where fish and other animals cannot survive.
As kelp grows it uses (or “uptakes”) nitrogen naturally. Once the kelp is harvested, that nitrogen is removed from the water. A leading researcher of the potential of kelp to remove nitrogen is UCONN Professor Charlie Yarish, whose research work has projected that if kelp were farmed on 1.5% of the Sound, it could remove nearly 6 million pounds of nitrogen each year.
Kelp is a “no-brainer”
In a world that needs good news, the news from kelp is all good. It’s a crop that uses no chemicals (no herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers); it’s a healthy food; it creates jobs and it improves the environment.
As Farmer Pete, from Fairgate Farms, notes, “the fact that [SoundWaters] uses this kelp to clean our waters and pull out excess nitrogen, and in turn we can use it to improve our soil and grow the healthiest food possible for our community…this partnership is a no-brainer.”
And, yes, it tastes great.
More Kelp this week?
We’re only halfway through kelp week. Still to come, we’ll follow kelp to the farm and to the kitchen.
Next Week? Oyster Week of course, when you’ll have the chance to purchase oysters directly from the oysterman at StellaMarOysters.com.