Why New England is going wild for wet weeds

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TIT PINK AND green buoys floated gently on the surface of the water as Catherine Puckett steered her boat towards them. Beneath the buoyed area, Mrs. Puckett plants kelp, a type of seaweed, on long ropes that look like clotheslines. In a good year, she harvests around five tonnes of the material, which is shipped from Block Island to be sold on the mainland.

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Seaweed has long been a mainstay of Japanese cuisine, but it is now spreading in America. Dieticians praise the high nutritional value of kelp and its many uses in cooking. Online retailers sell burgers, cured meat, and pasta made with kelp, which have satisfying chewing and clean, invigorating marine salinity. Restaurants offer kelp salads and kelp martinis. And manufacturers use the algae to make products as diverse as toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, and compostable straws.

Algae owe their growing popularity to something else as well. Research has shown that it restores underwater habitats, filters out contaminants and, by sequestering carbon dioxide, helps counter ocean acidification, making it an attractive way to help mitigate the effects of the ocean. climate change. Among the projects supported by a $ 100 million grant to the World Wildlife Fund from the Bezos Earth Fund, endowed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, was studying the environmental benefits of algae and encouraging their production. Sea Grant, a federally funded program that works with US research universities, has launched a Seaweed Hub to serve as a clearinghouse for the industry.

Seaweed cultivation is attracting newcomers, especially women, to the commercial seafood industry. GreenWave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, has a waiting list of around 8,000 people for its ocean agriculture program. Some former students, like Ms. Puckett, have added seaweed as a winter crop to their shellfish farms (the islanders affectionately call it “The Oyster Wench,” a name inspired by Shakespeare’s work. Richard II).

Others, like Suzie Flores, change careers. Prior to opening her kelp farm in Stonington, Connecticut, in 2017, she was an executive at a higher education software company. Bren Smith, founder of GreenWave, explains that one of the reasons ocean farming attracts newcomers is that it’s easier to start a seaweed farm than it is to become a commercial fisherman, which requires licenses in limited number and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kelp farmers, however, face several hurdles. Obtaining the required permits can be a bureaucratic process involving many government agencies. Ms. Flores says that outside of Maine, the infrastructure to handle the algae harvest is limited. Because raw kelp has a short shelf life, Ms Puckett has to harvest her crop within five hours to get it on a ferry before noon (she hopes to build her own processing plant on the island). And farmers sometimes have to deal with people complaining that farm equipment, while mostly underwater, spoils the view from their seaside villas.

The kelp industry is still young and seaweed cultivation is not always profitable. But, says Ms. Flores, “I find it very rewarding. You are growing food that is healthy for the environment and healthy for people.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Kelp Wanted”


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