Long Island marine farmers diversify their crops

Sugar kelp—seaweed—can save the bay and farmers


Seaweed—boaters and beachgoers know what it is—that slimy, yet sometimes crunchy stuff that gets tangled between your toes as you debark your vessel, carefully navigating your way to the shore. It’s what makes you scream “ewww” as it squishes beneath your feet, or in this reporter’s case, was the reason she had to be carried to the beach by her dad for most of her childhood.

Unpleasant consistencies aside, seaweed has a myriad of beneficial uses, and for one East Moriches resident and bayman, has become somewhat of a passion.

Paul McCormick, founder and operator of Great Gun Shellfish, has been growing and harvesting sugar kelp at his oyster farm situated along the Terrell River in East Moriches since 2019. A bayman with a B.S. in environmental science from Cornell University, McCormick became involved with the initiative when he was approached by Stony Brook University about growing the seaweed at his farm as part of a research project.

According to McCormick, while the bay is home to seaweeds such as gracilaria, agardhiella, and the sea lettuce known as ulva, sugar kelp is not usually found in Moriches Bay, but rather in more northern places like New England and Nova Scotia, where it thrives in colder water temperatures and deeper waters. The idea of farming sugar kelp was especially exciting, McCormick said, because it would take place in the shallow waters that serve as home to his oyster farms.

“I wasn’t sure that it had ever been tried; the prevailing belief is that because sugar kelp grows to lengths of 15 feet, the blades would degrade as they came into contact with the bottom. For no good reason, though, I had a hunch that it would work on the farm.”

And so did Mike Doall, a scientist and researcher at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who had been mulling the idea for more than a decade. An oyster farmer himself, Doall thought growing sugar kelp would be a great way to diversify his crop, so he gave it a try. With overall success at the Montauk site, Doall began thinking about growing it at other Long Island locations.

Meanwhile, McCormick was in the beginning stages of his foray into oyster farming, which led him to Doall and his Montauk oyster farm. As fellow scientists, baymen, and native Massapequa residents, the two hit it off immediately. As Doall continued to develop the sugar kelp research project, he could think of no better place than McCormick’s Terrell River oyster farm to give it a go. Grant funding and a partnership with the nonprofit environmental organization Greenwave helped to make the project a reality.

“Mike and I were inspired to make this happen, and so it did,” said McCormick. “We came up with a simple system to help keep the kelp suspended off the bottom before it reached a stage of hardiness, where it could endure the scouring sand while also being located just deep enough below the surface to avoid being destroyed by winter ice.”

The process of cultivating sugar kelp is a long one that begins in the fall, Doall said, when he and other members of the research team dive the waters off Montauk and Fisher’s Island to retrieve live kelp samples. After that, the samples are taken back to Doall’s research lab at Stony Brook University where tissue is removed, prepared, and kept overnight in a refrigerator before it’s immersed into a seawater tank. When the spores become large enough, they are wrapped around spools for planting in the oyster farm, sometime in December; sugar kelp crops are then harvested in the spring.

The system that McCormick and Doall devised to transplant the baby kelp was quite simple, both said. The kelp, after being wrapped around the spool of string, was stretched between two PVC pipes, and then installed in the water with anchors at each end, with the kelp being suspended about one foot above the sandy river bottom.

“Not only did it work, but the kelp at Great Gun oyster farm that initial year outperformed 16 other farms participating in the study that were all deeper water farms where kelp had traditionally been grown. The shallow-water success was a paradigm-shifting result for the industry. The kelp had grown from millimeters in December to monstrous 6-to-9-foot blades by late March, and it’s been that way every year since,” said McCormick.

While McCormick is still growing sea kelp in a research stage, Doall is hopeful that by next year, aquaculture farmers will be able to get permits which will allow it to be harvested for retail. This means that farmers won’t have to rely only on their oyster farms.

“Oyster farming is a lot of work; you’re always in the water,” Doall noted. “This [sugar kelp farming] will enable Long Island marine farmers to diversify their crops and will add a revenue stream to New York’s aquaculture industry.”

“It’s an extremely low-maintenance crop; you essentially set it and forget it. You don’t have to flip it, clean it, cull it, tumble it, split it, or any of the other myriad cultivation tasks required in oyster farming,” added McCormick.

Which could mean significant returns for farmers, depending on what market they target. Doall said the prices for kelp can range: fresh baby kelp could sell for as much as $10 a pound, while processed kelp could go for 50 cents a pound, Doall said. At Great Gun oyster farm, anywhere from 4 to 10 pounds of sugar kelp is harvested in a season.

But there’s more than just the economic benefit to sugar kelp farming: equally as beneficial is the positive impact on the environment, said McCormick and Doall, especially when it comes to improving water quality in Long Island waterways, which has been greatly diminished over the years to due nitrogen pollution.  And while there are land-based solutions currently in place or underway to mitigate the damaging effects of nitrogen, such as alternative septic systems, Doall said those benefits will take years to realize. Therefore, “in-water solutions” like growing sea kelp provides a more immediate solution, because as sugar kelp undergoes photosynthesis, excess nutrients and carbon dioxide are removed while oxygen is released. In addition, sea kelp provides the perfect natural habitat for the variety of sea creatures that live in Terrell River.

For now, the sugar kelp from Great Gun oyster farm is being used strictly for research purposes, said McCormick. Once harvested, the kelp is taken to Stony Brook’s facilities, where it is dried for research purposes. One of the studies includes using the kelp as a soil amendment, Doall said, and so it’s been ground into meal and applied to research gardens that grow carrots, spinach, and tomatoes.

When the time does come for Long Island aquaculture farmers like McCormick to obtain permits for commercial production, there are countless ways that the kelp can be used in a variety of industries, including food, cosmetics, fertilizers, bioplastics, and animal feed. “The list goes on,” McCormick said.  In the meantime, McCormick and Doall agree that the sugar kelp is at its best when it’s fresh off the vine.


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