How kelp farming is helping revive the economy and ecology of a Long Island bay

This article originally appeared in Nexus Media News and was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

For most of the Shinnecock Nation’s history, the waters off the east end of Long Island were a place of plenty. Expert fishermen, whalers and farmers, the people of Shinnecock have lived for centuries on the clams, striped bass, flounder, bluefish and fruits native to the area.

Today, the area is best known as a playground for the wealthy, where mansions sell for tens of millions of dollars. The Shinnecock community no longer lives off the water as it once did – rapid development, pollution and warming waters have resulted in losses of fish, shellfish and plants that were once central to the Shinnecock diet and culture.

That’s why Tela Troge, a lawyer and member of the federally recognized tribe, started planting kelp.

Kelp is a large, fast-growing brown seaweed that sequesters carbon and harmful pollutants. It is also full of nutrients and is used in foods, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers, making it big business.

The global market for commercial seaweed is valued at around $15 billion and is expected to reach $25 billion by 2028. In the United States, the kelp market is expected to quadruple by 2035, according to the Island Institute.

For the estimated 800 residents of the Shinnecock Reservation, where Troge said some families live on just $6,000 a year, kelp farming could be an economic lifeline. On one side of Shinnecock Hills, “you have billionaire row where some of the richest people in America have homes,” Troge said. “Then on the other side you have Shinnecock Territory, where 60% of us live in total poverty.”

In 2019, Troge, an attorney who has represented the Shinnecock Nation in federal land rights cases, was looking for a way to create jobs and clean up Shinnecock Bay. That’s when GreenWave, a non-profit organization that promotes regenerative ocean agriculture, approached the community to start a kelp hatchery.

Troge and five other women in her community formed the Shinnecock Kelp Farm, the first such Aboriginal farm on the East Coast.

Greenwave’s model “matched so closely our skills, our expertise, our traditional ecological knowledge,” Troge said. The Shinnecocks practiced regenerative ocean farming long before the term existed; they farmed scallops, shellfish, oysters and clams – all natural water purifiers – as well as seaweed.

This system of kelp removing nitrogen near the surface while shellfish do the same below creates powerful water filtration, said Charles Yarish, emeritus marine evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut. It’s an old model. “If you go to Chinese literature, even to ancient Egypt, you will see examples of these cultures having integrated aquaculture,” he said.

Kelp feeds on excess carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The latter two are pollutants responsible for harmful algal blooms that have killed plants and animals in Shinnecock Bay, said Christopher Gobler, a marine scientist at Stony Brook University on Long Island. Kelp blades are lined with cells containing sulfated polysaccharides, essentially chains of sugar molecules that give kelp its slimy texture. These polysaccharides bind to nitrogen and phosphorus, pulling both out of the water and dissolving the nitrogen into a compound called nitrate. Dissolved nitrogen is what makes kelp a powerful natural fertilizer.

These kelp forests promote biodiversity, reduce ocean acidification, and remove dissolved carbon dioxide from the water. A meta-analysis by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that, on average, these farms remove 575 pounds of nitrogen per acre. (Projections based on another study, from Stony Brook University, put that figure at 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre.), according to a 2021 study published in Nature.

Compared to land-based crops, kelp requires very few resources — just spores, the sea and sunlight — and far less labor and harvesting equipment, said Halley Froehlich, a marine biologist at the ‘University of California, Santa Barbara. But, Froehlich added, the real superpower of kelp is that it grows fast, faster than almost any other plant on the planet.

In December 2021, Troge and his business partners began planting 20 kelp coils off St. Joseph Villa, a retreat space just across the bay from the reserve. The villa, which offers easy access to the water, was once owned by the Shinnecock Nation. Today it is run by a Catholic ministry known for its environmental and social justice work.

Troge and his fellow farmers ran the business from a cabin donated by the ministry and encountered their fair share of challenges. It took longer than expected to find the right species of kelp, the one they considered hearty enough for the hatchery.

“We came out later than expected because December is quite late,” said Danielle Hopson-Begun, who co-founded Shinnecock Kelp Farm. Sugar kelp is normally planted in mid-fall, in time for a growth spurt in January.

Then they suffered from outbreaks of slippery gut, a type of algae that grows on sweet kelp and chokes it.

But in the spring of 2022, the Shinnecock women harvested 100 pounds of kelp, most of which was dried and sold as organic fertilizer. They donated their excess spores to GreenWave, which distributed the excess to other growers. This was a small harvest compared to established kelp farms. Gobler, the marine scientist, estimated that a one-acre ocean farm could generate 70,000 pounds of kelp.

This year, farmers plan to scale up from 20 kelp coils to 200. They expect a significantly higher yield and are exploring different uses for the crop, such as food and cosmetics. They are also talking with other hatcheries about swapping kelp coils to experiment with different species of algae. The farm is already clearing the area, Hopson-Begun said; since operations began, she said the water seemed clearer and more birds were flying overhead.

As Troge and his colleagues plan ahead, they are also looking to hire additional staff to help manage the harvest. They plan to hire from within the Shinnecock community. “I’m very excited about building to the point of giving people paid jobs,” says Troge.

This article was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, non-profit news service covering climate change. Follow us @NexusMediaNews.

Iris M. Crawford is a climate journalist and editor of Climate Justice at Nonprofit Quarterly.

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