Seaweed: It’s what’s for dinner

Thimble Islands – Brendan Smith sidles his small fishing boat, Mookie, alongside a row of basketball-size black buoys, bobbing barely a mile off Branford in the Thimble Island section of Long Island Sound.

“That’s my floating long-line gear and those float on the surface,” he says. And then pointing to what looks like a dark shadow beneath them. “That there’s another line and that’s about a meter down and that’s what the seaweed is growing on.”

Yup, seaweed. And not only is seaweed growing on that line, it’s deliberately growing on that line. This is what Smith calls his farm –- a 20-acre spread that still goes by its 10-year-old original name the Thimble Island Oyster Company. It is in fact now a vertical system of clams, scallops, mussels and, since December, an uppermost layer of seaweed, or more elegantly, kelp.

Whatever you want to call it, to most people it’s a slimy, often smelly affront to what otherwise might be a clean beach, a nuisance in the water and potentially a danger to outboard motors. But to Smith, it’s the future.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks as he and assistant Ron Gautreau haul the submerged line out of the water to reveal wide strips of sugar kelp that look something like greenish-brown, waterlogged lasagna noodles.

But whether seaweed farming in Long Island Sound becomes a salvation for the fishing and shellfishing industries, shocked or worse by more than a decade of environmental indignities, is uncertain. Legislation to help accomplish that is all but dead in the water (pardon the pun). And that would likely leave only the most intrepid to navigate the required and extensive permiting as Smith has for the last year-and-a-half.

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He felt he had no choice.

“I’ve been wiped out three times from different storms, from mud, from everything from starfish to drills to other kinds of critters that kill my oysters,” he said. In Sandy and Irene, a huge percentage of his oysters drowned in mud; and he lost equipment.

“I actually got online and started searching on Google looking for other ways to grow things,” he said. “It just so happened that the world’s expert on growing seaweed was in Stamford at UConn.”

So Smith called him. Charlie Yarish, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and marine sciences, for decades has studied kelp and in particular its water-cleaning ability to soak up nitrogen and phosphorus that run off from things like the fertilizer people put on their lawns. Such runoff is a likely cause of hypoxia –- low oxygen levels — that has persisted in Long Island Sound for years. Yarish uses a mouthful of jargon to explain it – nutrient bioextraction.

“We can begin to manage nutrients -– nitrogen, phosphorus — in our coastal waters if we use farming technologies. It is something that the Asians been doing for a long tome,” he said. “What we do with the biomass is a different issue.”

Eat that biomass

The way Smith sees it, eating that biomass is the way to go. But it’s meant getting all kinds of state and federal permits for everything from those buoys to one that approves the kelp as a food source.

It took a year to get the OK for the gear. That came late last summer and cost him around $3,000. The food source authorization arrived this month, in the nick of time for his first harvest.

The legislation –- stalled despite widespread support -– would streamline most permiting through the state Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture.

“They’re already here for an agriculture certificate to grow it,” said director Dave Carey. “So basically you would have one-stop shopping.

“It’s never going be a simple process like it is when you purchase a piece of land and want to grow lettuce. The processes for that are a lot easier because the public doesn’t have access to that land.“

Aquaculture can’t interfere with navigation or recreational fishing or boating.

But what’s most thorny is that approved food source designation. Seaweed soaking up all those runoff nutrients isn’t really an issue, since the human body can eat those; but there’s the possibility it could soak up all kinds of nasty contaminants, like lead, as well.

“We need to make sure that there’s nothing on the seaweed when it’s harvested that’s going to be going directly onto someone’s plate,” said Kristin DeRosia-Banick, an environmental analyst at the Bureau of Aquaculture.

That’s especially concerning for Smith’s kelp because it’s raised to be marketed fresh and raw, and largely used uncooked. Most kelp available in the U.S., typically through Asian markets or in Asian food, is dried or at best blanched and frozen, which is how the one existing Northeast kelp operation in Maine handles its product.

Smith expects to process some kelp through the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Center, an aquaculture vocational public high school that recently received approval to do such work. But he’s hedging his bets with plans to also market his kelp for fertilizer -– a longstanding use — and eventually biofuel.

Blue-green economy

“At the very least I’m creating a closed energy loop where I’m growing my own fuel to run my farm and maybe supplying fuel for local communities,” he said. He calls it a blue-green economy. “We can create jobs and create a future for fishing communities.”

But the big unanswered question -– especially in the face of a continued daunting permitting process if the legislation fails -– is whether that is a reasonable aspiration.

State agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky thinks it is. “I’m looking forward to having this product launched and on the market,” he said.

Carey expects outreach to chefs will help generate interest in a product that is known to be nutritious. “There’s a whole bunch of other arrays of other formats that are going to develop from this point forward,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Leah Lopez Schmalz of the advocacy group Save the Sound –- longtime campaigners for hypoxia-combating efforts — said there’s no question that operations like Smith’s create jobs and help water quality. “As long as it’s localized and small scale,” she said. “Not some sort of new massive takeover of Long Island Sound. This is good for transitional jobs.”

At Yale University’s tiny one-third acre farm, manager Jeremy Oldfield has been buying a fish and kelp emulsion to fertilize the vegetables. But as of mid-May, that cost went down to nothing with a load of kelp –- free — from Smith.

It now sits mixed in water in a 55-gallon food grade plastic barrel decomposing for six weeks before it’s suitable as an emulsion to spray on the fields. Oldfield said the kelp with its absorbed nitrogen and potassium from the Sound helps solve the farm’s soil problem of too much phosphorus. Granted, he said, the fertilizer runoff into the Mill River and eventually the Sound is not ideal, but Smith’s kelp farm closes the environmental loop by re-absorbing it.

“We wind up being much more responsible stewards of the land than we were formerly able to be,” Oldfield said.

The kelp cocktail

But food is trickier. If they’ve worked with kelp at all, chefs and other culinary professionals typically have only handled dried kelp and think of it as limited to Asian food.

To that end Smith has been giving samples to people like Mayur Subbarao, co-founder of Bittermens Spirits, and a cocktail consultant. He designs cocktails for restaurants; and until Smith turned up, had only worked with dried seaweed.

Subbarao has converted a shrub, a traditional sugar, salt, vinegar and alcohol drink, into one with kelp, rice wine vinegar, togarashi — Japanese chilies, sea salt and sugar. He’s infused kelp and horseradish into Aquavit. He thinks kelp has a future in his business, but local is a new concept.

“It’s a massive change,” he said. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t think of seaweed coming from anywhere other than Japan or Hawaii.”

Brad Stabinsky, the executive chef of Chamard Vineyards and Bistro, also never expected to see fresh, local kelp land in his kitchen. “People think seaweed, what am I going to do with seaweed other than do a nice clam bake,” he asked.

Once he figured out how to keep Smith’s kelp fresh (iced salt water), and that frying basically disintegrated it, he turned out kelp-wrapped deep fried oysters, a béarnaise sauce with kelp instead of tarragon, and fresh in a salad. They’re just experiments so far, but a regular on the menu?

“I don’t know if I would, outside of mainly a special,” Stabinsky said.

And even though Smith is now authorized to run seven lines of kelp –- that’s nearly 24 tons per five-month growing cycle — he admits he was skeptical, too.

“That’s how I began,” he said. “It all sounded really crazy, but again I was forced to look for new things.

“I had to put a lot of money into it. I don’t know fully what the return’s going to be.”


Listen to reporter Jan Ellen Spiegel’s radio report about this subject on WNPR.