Like beautiful, edible ribbons in the sea, brown sugar kelp strands twist and turn gently in the constant movement of the waterways of Long Island Sound. This motion makes them grow and the ten to 15 foot streamers of glistening ocean food are helping to turn our oceans into a money crop for those like Jay Douglas who are brave enough to embark on a new kind of underwater farming.
As with all good ideas, this one was born from need. Jay and his wife Suzie Flores own Mechanic Street Marina in Pawcatuck , Connecticut, and although business was going well, the winter months were slim in the area of money flow, so, two years ago the couple began investigating their options. They discovered an innovative, vertical farming idea and were helped by the Connecticut non-profit Greenwaves, which was started by Branford resident and kelp farmer Bren Smith. With Smith’s help the couple embarked on their new venture, found an open plot of water that was available to be utilized for aquaculture and seeded their first crop of sugar kelp last November. They literally reaped the bounty of their efforts, this past April, when they harvested their very first 2000 pound crop, which was sold straight off the dock to local restaurants and to a business in Maine, which processes the kelp and dries it before taking it to market. Online, one pound of dried sugar kelp flakes, which can be added to soups, rice and chowders, sells for $50.
According to Jay, there are several different varieties of kelp, which grow in the waters of the Long Island Sound, however sugar kelp is the only one that is approved for human consumption, so that was the variation the couple seeded, in three of the ten acres of their rectangle plot of leasable ground in the Connecticut State waters of Fisher’s Island Sound, just off the coast of Stonington, Connecticut.
“We are all in!” confirmed Jay. “Not just to have revenue during the winter months, but because of the environmental benefits kelp provides for the water.”
Sugar kelp helps the ocean by absorbing the nitrogen, which seeps into the water from farm and lawn fertilizer. The sea vegetable also helps to add needed oxygen to the water, purifying and cleaning it.
With help and grants from Greenwave,( which according to its website is dedicated to building a new green economy and creating jobs, as well as restorative ocean farms on coasts around the world) Jay and Susie were able to obtain the needed seeds and navigate the permitting process to get the business up and running. Permits for this type of sea farming specify that all equipment must be removed from the water by May 1st and can’t be put back in place until November. The process includes divers going out into Long Island Sound and harvesting the sugar kelp seeds, which are are naturally growing, and bringing them back to a lab to get them to seed, then the lines are seeded three to five feet below the surface in the ocean in late November and early December. According to Jay, ideally the water needs to be below 58 degrees before the kelp will begin to grow. There is steady growth during the winter months, with a large surge in early spring. Jay explained that as water temperatures rise, other plants begin to outgrow sugar kelp and for that reason, along with permitting regulations, the kelp is harvested in April.
Sugar kelp, which has also been called “the next kale”, “sea belt” or “Devils apron,” is native to northeast Atlantic waters. It is said to be a source of anti-oxidants and contains complex polysaccharides, which are believed to stimulate immune systems, reduce inflammation and can help to remove heavy metals from the body.
“Sugar kelp is a vitamin rich, nutritious, versatile food that pretty much ends up tasting exactly like whatever you cook it with,” said Jay, who is a big fan of the all natural food. “It’s not fishy at all and it is very tender.”
Already a commonly devoured food in Asia, Jay hopes that next year even more restaurants experiment with the use of his sugar kelp in a variety of different ways on their menus.
“The chefs that have been using it so far have really taking to it well. So, next spring area people should be sure to keep a look out for it as a seasonal specialty,” said Jay.
Relying on mother nature for your paycheck is not always a pleasant experience Jay explained, and although the underwater farming went well this year, he said that working out on the water, in the middle of Connecticut winters, requires the proper equipment and presents its own set of unique challenges, however over all he is very pleased with his new business venture. His company is called, The Stonington Kelp Company, and he and Suzie are eagerly looking forward to seeding their little plot of the sea again this upcoming November.
For more information about the non-profit Greenwave, go to www.greenwave.org.