UConn addresses emerging seaweed agriculture
February 20, 2017
an Wood, at the University of Connecticut, writes that assistant extension educator of marine aquaculture at UConn’s Avery Point Campus, Anoushka Concepcion, spoke about the recent developments in the vegetable aquaculture industry that has been growing and showing promise in the past few decades. Her talk titled “A Sea Vegetable Saga” was an overview meant to link and build a community of citizens who are interested in growing and consuming these new products.
“It is a saga because it is not a simple or quick process,” Ms. Concepcion said. “There are a lot of moving parts and challenges that we still haven’t figured out yet.”
These new products that are being developed are a part of an 8-10 billion dollar industry worldwide, not to mention the projected 35 million dollar demand that was projected for the United States in the coming year. Currently, most of the seaweed that is produced and sold in the U.S. is wild harvest, something Ms. Concepcion is working to change.
Her mission within the extension program is primarily to transfer the use of new, tested technology from the laboratories of marine researchers to the aquaculture farmers who are out on the water every day, as well as working along side them to improve the process and quality of the agriculture.
Currently Ms. Concepcion is working with the technology involved in the propagation and cultivation of Connecticut native sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), an edible brown macroalga that can be found and grown in virtually any region on New England’s coastline.
Secondary to this task is to help address the many bottlenecks that might face any people when dealing with the many aspects of a new agricultural sector being set up, and utilized. The extension program has to meet the standards of public health guidelines, most of which are not established on the local and state levels about how to safely cultivate and process seaweeds on a commercial level that can sell to food producers and the public.
“I never thought of seaweed as something that could be cultivated for human consumption. It is very exciting to hear about an entirely new genera of vegetables that are going to be produced locally,” said Melica Bloom, a former UConn Anthropology student.
Similar issues include the rigorous legislation relating to permitting aquaculture farmers to operate seaweed farms and maintain the regulations relating to many current shellfish operations, currently farming and selling various mollusks. With the local, state and federal food safety systems already in place for many restaurants and food producers, incorporating a new practice altogether is no easy task.
The department is also conducting many studies on other native species of macroalgae that could potentially serve as a food source for feeding the future generations of New England.
Another species of algae (Gracilaria tikvahiae) that was tested after harvest showed unsafe levels of heavy metals in addition to some toxins. Although it renders this seaweed unfit for human consumption, this indicates that the nutrient fixation of some of these species could potentially serve as an ecological service to clean the waters, and provide cleaner water for the other aquaculture farmers. Instead of human consumption, this alga could certainly find its way into the other industries of seaweed use such as cosmetics, or bio-fuel, after helping clean up the sound.
“Using Gracilaria as a sponge for all the pollutants in the long island sound was an application that I did not expect to hear about. This new industry shows a lot of promise for the future of Connecticut aquaculture,” Graham Stinnett, a Dodd Research Center archive employee, said.
Dr. Charles Yarish, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the UConn Stamford Campus, has been working for more than 30 years on these developments and is one of the only certified seed producers for sugar kelp. Currently he is working with locals and grads to connect scientists with chefs, growers and the public to generate momentum.
“New England has a great social climate for generating attention for seaweed consumption. We are actively trying to connect to the right chefs so we can reach the right people,” said Ms. Concepcion. “Some of the growers are available now at Whole Foods Market and more will be soon so keep your eyes peeled for new local seaweed products in stores.”