The Vegetables of the Sea

From the Long Island Sound to off the coast of Connecticut, a new method of American Agriculture has been created.  Greenwave, an organization that promotes ocean farming is developing kelp growth, creating a new form of a sea vegetable. our partner “Science Friday” has the story.

TRANSCRIPT

From the Long Island Sound to the coast of Connecticut, a new method of American agriculture has been created.

Green Wave, an organization that promotes ocean farming, is developing kelp growth, creating a new form of a sea vegetable.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

Unlike sort of salmon aquaculture and other things, there just isn't much to see.

You just see some buoys floating, but, you know, you can imagine it as sort of this underwater garden.

It's farming just like somebody who has a tomato farm or, you know, some sort of vegetable garden.

It's just I do it out on the water instead of on land.

It's one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, so we can grow incredible amount of sea vegetables in small areas.

And we don't have to add any fertilizer at all.

We're just kind of taking something that's happening naturally and trying to organize it into one location so that we can make the most of what's growing.

My name is Suzie Flores, and I am an executive market-development manager at McGraw-Hill Education, and, on the side, I am a kelp farmer.

I had heard about seaweed farming, and I wanted to grow some just for consumption.

The more that I looked into it and the more I read about it, I realized that it's also a fantastic thing to do for the environment.

And then, once we saw that there was a possible economic upside for it, we decided to give it a shot.

My name is Bren Smith, and I'm a 3-D ocean farmer.

You know, I came into this as a commercial fisherman, and I had to be sort of a nurturing arugula farmer in a way, and it was a psychic shift for me.

When I first showed up here 15 years ago, my patch of ocean was this barren water, and now it's this whole thriving ecosystem with mussels, clams, oysters, kelp.

The challenge is, is imagine growing in an environment where the soil turns over 1,000 times a day.

I mean, we're just getting currents and changeover and nutrients, and that dynamism is what grows sort of a beautiful sea vegetable, but it also makes it difficult for a farmer.

The kelp we grow is called sugar kelp.

Which is a native seaweed that grows all along the East Coast corridor.

And what we do is, every fall, we go out and collect a few pieces of kelp that are reproductive and bring it back to our hatchery, and the little spores attach to pieces of string.

And then we take it back out into the ocean from whence it came, and we out-plant it on our long lines, which are submerged about 3 feet underneath the water.

The turbidity of the water, the murkiness of the water, could impact how much sunlight is actually getting through to the kelp.

Kelp gets everything from the water, so, as the water current, you know, goes through our kelp farm, it's also bringing with it all of the nutrition.

Kelp needs a mix of, like, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, and sunlight, so my job with the kelp is to find that sweet spot where we capture the nutrients and also the sunlight.

We harvest the kelp in the spring season, before all of the other competing species are going to be around.

All the junk that grows on the kelp, the epiphytes, the sea squirts, all these different things that, as the water temperatures increase in the ocean, essentially wake up, they attack the kelp.

And it doesn't render it completely useless.

You still could use it for fertilizer and things like that, but it does mean that it's not pretty enough for people to consume.

But this is a good thing.

I mean, we're creating a foundation for the ecosystem, for everything to come eat, hide, and thrive.

The economics of kelp farming and ocean farming are, in some ways, the most powerful piece.

Land, [Chuckles] especially in this area, is not cheap, but leasing space in the ocean, It makes much more economical sense.

The fact that overhead is so low when you don't grow fish opens up opportunities for regular folks like me to be out here and starting our own farms.

We grow about 10 to 20 tons per acre in basically a four- to five-month time.

It is one of the few crops that could be used for food consumption, that could be used for fuel, that could be used for fertilizer.

I mean, kelp, people think that disgusting thing on the beach, but what we're trying to do is really make kelp the new kale and reimagine the seafood plate of the future.

There's no fish flavor to it at all.

It's very mild and subtle.

You cut it into noodles, and you boil it.

It turns a really beautiful bright green color, and then you can throw it in any sort of sauce like you would spaghetti.

Luckily, in the U.S., this is one of the great sort of culinary moments of our history with all these brilliant chefs all around the country thinking of kelp as not seafood but as a vegetable.

We need to push beyond sustainability in our food system and our agricultural system into restoration, into regenerative crops.

Kelp, for example, captures five times more carbon than land-based plants.

And one of the things that it likes to absorb through the blades is nitrogen, so it can offset other algaes from blooming.

As nitrogen runs into Long Island Sound, for example, it creates these dead zones.

Our kelp can actually breed life.

It can capture that nitrogen.

This nexus of job creation, economic opportunity, food justice, and environmentalism, that's the sweet spot.

You know, what's exciting for me, who's been out here doing this for a long time, is to see Jay and Suzie Flores.

They're energetic.

They're talented.

They care about both the economy and the ecology of this, and they're just exactly what the future of ocean farming should be.

I never thought that I would be a kelp farmer.

I hope that I'm at the forefront of a larger wave of aquaculture, and I hope that people continue to learn more about this sea vegetable and think about ways it can be infused into our economy and into our diets.