Seaweed And The Sound

May 21, 2013

For the last decade or so, Connecticut’s fishermen and shellfishermen have weathered a nearly non-stop storm of difficulties;  some related to climate change; some from pollution.

One fisherman who has had enough is embarking on a new enterprise that many hope will help to save or create jobs on Long Island Sound, and clean it up.

Brendan Smith is looking at a long rope covered with slimy, green, wet seaweed. He’s hoisted it high against a deep blue sky above Long Island Sound in the Thimble Islands.

Seaweed or kelp – whatever you choose to call it, may be a perpetual bane to outboard motors – but to Smith – it’s the future. "This line right here; this is 2 months of growth," he said.

For ten years, Smith has farmed the Sound as the Thimble Island Oyster Company. "I’ve been wiped out three times from different storms," he said, "from mud, from everything from starfish, to drills, to other kinds of critters that kill my oysters. So I actually got online and started searching on Google looking for other ways to grow things. It just so happened that the world’s expert on growing seaweed was in Stamford at UConn."

That would be Charlie Yarish. For decades, he’s researched seaweed’s natural ability to soak up substances that can harm the Sound, like nitrogen and phosphorus that run off from the fertilizers on lawns. "It is something the Asians had been doing for a long time," Yarish said, "and we can start doing that, using our own farming technologies."

Smith decided to try it – but he was thinking food. Working with Yarish he planted sugar kelp to sell fresh – kelp sold in this country is usually dried or processed. He wanted to supply it for fertilizer, and even for biofuel. But first he had to get through a laundry list of state and federal permits for everything from the gear he needed to authorize for the kelp as an approved food source.

It took a year and thousands of dollars for the gear – that happened last August. And only recently has he gotten the final okay to sell it as food. In the interim legislation to streamline, permitting was proposed. Despite widespread support, it remains stalled in the legislature.

The plan is to use the Department of Agriculture’s aquaculture bureau as one-stop-permit-shopping, says director Dave Carey: "It’s never gonna be a simple process like it is when you purchase a piece of land and want to grow lettuce. The processes for that are a lot easier because the public doesn’t have access to that land."

Smith has already delivered a load of kelp to Yale University’s farm to make into fertilizer. Farm manager Jeremy Oldfield says the kelp closes an environmental loop because it provides the nitrogen and potassium the fields need, but that also end up in the Sound through runoff. Kelp absorbs that and returns it to the farm.

Oldfield said, "We wind up being much more responsible stewards of the land than we were formerly able to be. I do think the idea of helping Bren in an effort to sort of diversify his income stream off of kelp.That’s just exciting for us."

Among the restaurants Smith hopes to sell to is the Bistro at Chamard Vineyard. Executive chef, Brad Stabinsky has experimented with Smith’s kelp. He wrapped it around oysters, breaded and fried them; made a béarnaise sauce with kelp instead of tarragon; and added raw kelp to salad. He says he’ll put kelp on his menu occasionally.

"Why not?" said Stabinsky. "If it’s safe, if it’s delicious... or if we can find ways to make it delicious and have something else that I can show the people here once in awhile about being local, what’s wrong with that? I think it’s great."

Brendan Smith calls his seaweed a fisherman’s dream crop, though he does miss the thrill of the high seas. "We chase fish," said Smith. "We’re out on the high seas, so this idea that we’re gonna start farming arugula and cabbage--it’s a real challenge to the identity in many ways." On the other hand, he hopes it's a way he and others can stay in business.