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Standardizing Kelp Farming

April 30, 2017

Walrus and Carpenter oyster farmers Jules Opton-Himmel, Steven Medgyesy and Finn Kelly hope to supplement their shellfish business by growing kelp in the off-season. Local chefs are purchasing the fresh kelp and using it to accent upscale cuisine. Courtesy: Rhode Island Monthly

Diane Stopyra writes in that a growing number of coastal states around the country are undertaking large-scale seaweed farming projects. While farms are underway in Alaska, California and Oregon, New England is leading the country in number of operations; farms have sprung up in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as well as in New York.

“Seaweed is very important for its natural ecosystem values,” said Charles Yarish, PhD, leading seaweed expert and a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of Connecticut. “Farming it is a win-win for the environment and the economy.”

So, how is it that kelp is on its way to cash-crop status?

Last year, Barton Seaver of Harvard University’s Healthy and Sustainable Food Program told NPR: “Kelp is the new kale. Watch out because it’s coming, and it will be everywhere in the next decade.”

Translation: Seaweed is money. The industry was worth $6 billion globally in 2014, and that number is expected to hit $18 billion by 2021.

Considering these myriad benefits, Dr. Yarish sat down in 2009 while on sabbatical from UConn to contemplate why seaweed farming hadn’t yet taken hold in America. At the time, the U.S. couldn’t claim a single commercial operation. Today, there are more than 20, with more on the horizon.

“I realized the biggest problem was that everyone was keeping under wraps how to do things, so I decided that I was going to make everything open source,” he told Salon. “This would take the secret out of things by giving everyone a cookbook, a plan to move ahead, and it would spur innovation.”

The procedure Dr. Yarish and his team established, which was supported by NOAA and the Connecticut Sea Grant program, has been adopted by startup seaweed farmers in North America. It involves sourcing reproductive tissue from naturally occurring kelp in the fall, when daylight hours and water conditions are right. These reproductive tissues contain millions of cells, which are brought to a lab and made to settle on substrate – pieces of thread similar in width to kite string.

After five weeks of development, these seed-containing threads are attached to longlines, or 100-yard ropes anchored to the sea or estuary floor. They sit about five to six feet below the surface of the water, depending on light penetration, meaning recreational boats can drive over the top of them. Within five to six months, seeds that entered the water the size of a pinhead are now up to 18 feet in length and ready for harvesting.

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