Ocean State Kelp Farmer Sees ‘Incredible Potential’ in Industry
Because kelp stores carbon and removes excess nutrients from seawater, it might be the right crop at the right time in the current climate crisis
March 21, 2022
Farmed kelp represents a tiny share 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, formed her company, Rhody Wild Sea Gardens LLC, in 2020 and grew her first kelp crop in 2021.
“I’m in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, and I’m sub-leasing from a [oyster] farmer there,” she said. “I have what I hope to be around 7,000 pounds this year harvesting, wet weight, of kelp — what I hope to be. I don’t know yet.”
Sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima, is a brown marine algae that resembles lasagna noodles and often washes up on R.I. beaches. Its value as a food is undisputed in Asia, where it is widely cultivated for its vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is also used as a sweetener and as a 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 that its moment may be coming soon. Because kelp stores carbon and removes excess nutrients from seawater, it might be the right crop at the right time in the current climate crisis.
“Carbon capture — there’s so many environmental benefits that kelp provides, and that’s why I got into it, to try to figure out a way to get us farmers, not just kelp, but oyster aquaculture into that space, to be able to receive financial benefits to our farmers because we’re actually a good to the ecosystem,” she said. “Currently, there’s not really an opportunity to do that. There’s obviously carbon capture, carbon offset trading programs out there for land-based farms, so I’m trying to figure out a way for that to apply to us.”
Cygler also noted that because it grows so quickly, kelp captures more carbon than woodlands.
“Kelp captures 20 times more carbon than land-based 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 the sort of runoff nutrients, and it also provides a really great storm buffer in the winter. It’s a habitat for species in the area — there’s just a lot of really good water quality benefits.”
Kelp also has potential for use as a more environmentally friendly animal feed. Methane, much of it emitted by cattle, is a greenhouse gas and marine algae reduces methane.
“There’s an incredible potential for using kelp and other marine algae for animal feed, to reduce methane,” Cygler added. “There’s a lot of great science happening where they’ve fed it to cows. A species of red algae in particular has reduced the methane emissions by 70 to 90 percent.”
The Coastal Resources Management Council regulates aquaculture in the state and publishes the annual Aquaculture in Rhode Island report. The most recent report, issued in 2020, states that of the 84 aquaculture operations in Rhode Island, only two are kelp farms.
While the number of kelp growers has declined from about six a few years ago, CRMC has received one application to expand a seasonal kelp growing operation in the Harbor of Refuge. In 2020, the agency rejected an application for a 10-acre kelp farm off Napatree Point in Westerly. The applicant hoped the farm would improve water quality, but opponents said it would disturb waterfowl, impede fishing and mar the appearance of the popular recreation area.
Aquaculture is a R.I. success story, with products valued at more than $4.2 million in 2020. Oysters are by far the most widely grown product, but the pandemic hit the industry hard in 2020 with restaurant closures, and the total value of the national market for farmed shellfish declined by more than 32%.
Although the total area in R.I. leased for aquaculture is less than 350 acres, conflicts are not uncommon between growers, homeowners, and recreational and commercial fishermen. Kelp farming takes place during the winter, reducing the potential for conflict.
While state regulations are the same for kelp and shellfish farms, CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer said the season for growing kelp is much shorter.
“The aquaculture regulations apply to both, though each application is evaluated on its own merit,” she wrote in an email. “The seasonal kelp-only operations are limited to Nov. 1 to May 1 by stipulation on the assent. This has to do with the growing cycle of kelp but also all gear is removed in the off-season to avoid any conflicts.”
Cygler said she had experienced her own challenges as she tried to start her kelp farm.
“A lot of the use conflicts we see with the year-round aquaculture crops, and I think kelp can really avoid that, although there’s still opposition,” she said. “I tried to get my own lease and was met with much opposition, so in order to just kind of get a jump-start, I’m working with another farmer at the moment. He’s an oyster farmer and he’s allowed to grow kelp. It’s permitted. He’s just never done it before, so we’re partnering on that.”
Unlike the complexities of use conflicts and regulations, the gear required to grow kelp is simple: strings wrapped around PVC pipes.
“That shoestring is seeded with kelp babies,” Cygler said. “It looks like a fuzzy bit of string. We buy that from a few different sources … GreenWave in Connecticut is where most of us get our seed at the moment.”
The kelp season usually begins in November. This year, however, the kelp wasn’t planted until January.
“There was something that happened with the seed, so we ended up planting at the beginning of January, so we lost about a month and a half of growing time,” Cygler said.
Dwyer said CRMC recognizes the environmental services kelp provides.
“CRMC supports kelp where it can be accommodated, as it has been shown to have a net positive effect on the environment, similar to shellfish growing,” she said.
While kelp farming in R.I. is still in its infancy, Cygler believes there is great potential for growth.
“I think there’s a growing awareness, you know, of local agriculture, local food,” she said. “Maine is doing a really good job of that. Maine’s got about 80 percent of the national kelp market, so we’re really, really small … Connecticut has some really great farms.”
Cygler has joined a Stonington, Conn.-based regional sugar kelp cooperative to promote its many uses.
“We’re planning a ‘Kelp Harvest Week’ April 20 to May 1,” she said. “Restaurants are agreeing to buy our kelp and we’re going to have events … just bolster awareness,” she said. “A big thing is, our price point’s pretty low, kelp isn’t a high-value product, so this Kelp Week is a way to get restaurants to buy in and we get a bit of a higher value for our harvest.”