Farmed kelp represents a tiny fraction of Rhode Island’s aquaculture revenue, but Azure Cygler believes that as more people recognize its nutritional and environmental benefits, its popularity will grow.
Cygler, an extension specialist at the University of Rhode Island, started his company, Rhody Wild Sea Gardens LLC, in 2020 and grew his first crop of kelp in 2021.
“I am in the eastern passage of Narragansett Bay, and I sublet to a [oyster] farmer there,” she said. “I have what I hope to be around 7,000 pounds this year in harvest, wet weight, kelp – which I hope to be. I do not know yet.
sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima, is a lasagna-like brown seaweed that often washes up on RI beaches. Its food value is undisputed in Asia, where it is widely cultivated for its vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is also used as a sweetener and thickener for foods and even cosmetics. It has been used for millennia as an organic fertilizer.
The benefits of kelp are largely unrecognized in the United States, but Cygler and others believe its moment may soon be upon us. Because kelp stores carbon and removes excess nutrients from seawater, it could be the right crop at the right time in the current climate crisis.
“Carbon capture – there are so many environmental benefits that kelp offers, and that’s why I set out, to try to find a way to bring us farmers, not just kelp, but oyster farming into this space, to be able to receive funds benefits for our farmers because we are in fact a good for the ecosystem,” she said. “Currently, there is not really an opportunity to do that. There are obviously carbon capture and carbon offset trading programs for terrestrial farms, so I’m trying to find a way to make that apply to us.
Cygler also noted that because it grows so quickly, kelp captures more carbon than forests.
“Kelp captures 20 times more carbon than terrestrial forests per acre because it grows so fast,” she said. “But for me, it’s not just the carbon aspect, it’s all the other ecosystem services. It captures nitrogen, phosphorus, all kinds of runoff nutrients, and it also provides a very good winter storm buffer. It’s a habitat for species in the area – there are just a lot of water quality benefits.
Kelp also has the potential to be used as a more environmentally friendly animal feed. Methane, much of which is emitted by livestock, is a greenhouse gas and seaweed reduces methane.
“There is incredible potential for using kelp and other seaweed for animal feed, to reduce methane,” Cygler added. “There are a lot of great scientific discoveries where they gave some to cows. One species of red algae in particular has reduced methane emissions by 70-90%.
The Coastal Resource Management Board regulates aquaculture in the state and publishes the Rhode Island Aquaculture Annual Report. The most recent report, released in 2020, indicates that of Rhode Island’s 84 aquaculture operations, only two are kelp farms.
Although the number of kelp growers was down by about six a few years ago, CRMC received a request to expand a seasonal kelp farming operation in Refuge Harbour. In 2020, the agency rejected an application for a 10-acre kelp farm off Napatree Point in Westerly. The claimant hoped the farm would improve water quality, but opponents said it would disturb waterfowl, hinder fishing and alter the appearance of the popular recreation area.
Aquaculture is an RI success story, with products valued at over $4.2 million in 2020. Oysters are by far the most widely grown commodity, but the pandemic has hit the industry hard in 2020 with restaurant closures and the total national market value for farmed shellfish has declined by more than 32%.
Although the total area of IR leased for aquaculture is less than 350 acres, disputes are not uncommon between producers, owners, and recreational and commercial fishers. Kelp cultivation takes place during the winter, which reduces the risk of conflict.
While state regulations are the same for kelp and shellfish farms, CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer said the kelp growing season is much shorter.
“Aquaculture regulations apply to both, although each application is assessed on its merits,” she wrote in an email. “Seasonal kelp-only operations are restricted from November 1 to May 1 by stipulation on assent. It has to do with the growth cycle of the kelp, but also all gear is removed out of season to avoid conflict.
Cygler said she encountered her own challenges trying to start her kelp farm.
“A lot of uses conflict with year-round aquaculture crops, and I think kelp can really avoid that, although there’s always opposition,” she said. “I tried to get my own lease and had a lot of opposition, so just to get started I’m working with another farmer at the moment. He is an oyster farmer and he has the right to grow kelp. It’s allowed. He’s never done it before, so we’re teaming up on that.
Unlike the complexity of use disputes and regulations, the equipment needed to grow kelp is simple: ropes wrapped around PVC pipes.
“This little budget is seeded with kelp babies,” Cygler said. “It looks like a fuzzy piece of string. We buy this from several different sources… GreenWave in Connecticut is where most of us get our seeds right now.
Kelp season usually begins in November. This year, however, the kelp was not planted until January.
“Something happened with the seed, so we ended up planting in early January, so we lost about a month and a half of growing time,” Cygler said.
Dwyer said CRMC recognizes the environmental services provided by kelp.
“The CRMC supports kelp where it can be housed because it has been shown to have a net positive effect on the environment, similar to shellfish farming,” she said.
While kelp farming in RI is still in its infancy, Cygler believes there is great potential for growth.
“I think there’s a growing awareness of, you know, local farming, local food,” she said. “Maine is doing a really good job of that. Maine has about 80% of the national kelp market, so we’re really, really small… Connecticut has some really good farms.
Cygler has joined a regional sugar kelp cooperative based in Stonington, Connecticut to promote its many uses.
“We are planning a ‘kelp harvest week’ from April 20 to May 1,” she said. “Restaurants are agreeing to buy our kelp and we’re going to have events…just to build awareness,” she said. “One important thing is that our price is quite low, kelp is not a high value product, so this kelp week is a way to get restaurants to buy and we get a bit more value for our harvest.”