Seaweed Farming in Our Backyard!

Photo of ocean farmer Bren Smith on 60 Minutes
Photo of ocean farmer Bren Smith on 60 Minutes

So, you’ve heard of agriculture, but what about aquaculture? Well seaweed farming is happening right here in Long Island Sound! Let’s delve into this a little bit! Seaweed…first of all, the term “weed” has a pretty negative connotation, similar to “pest.” And for frequent beach-goers it can be a real pest! It’s stinky, gets caught around our ankles, and washes up all over the place. But seaweed might be the way of the future to help the environment and people worldwide. Recently, with global population and ocean acidification on the rise, farmers and scientists are turning towards the seas!

What is aquaculture?

NOAA defines marine aquaculture as farmed seafood. Why should we focus on aquaculture? For many reasons! Aquaculture supports seafood production. As global human population reached 7.4 billion, people use the ocean as a source of protein. Agriculture can be expensive. It takes a lot of land and freshwater, as well as resources such as animal feed and plant fertilizers. Marine organisms don’t require either of those because they can acquire what they need from their environment, making aquaculture efficient. It also helps rebuild marine ecosystems which can lead to coastal resilience. Coastal resilience helps protect communities such as ours against storms, coastal erosion, and flooding by lessening the strength of waves as they approach land.

Where can you find an underwater farm?

Aquaculture is on the rise and is already happening right here in Long Island Sound! Connecticut local, Bren Smith, began the aquaculture movement in CT and was even featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Smith focuses on seaweed farming in the Sound, specifically sugar kelp. Sugar kelp can help reduce ocean acidification, is efficient to grow, and a great source of nutrients!

Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide from the air is absorbed by the oceans. Sounds great, right? We don’t want extra carbon dioxide from sources such as fossil fuels to be in our air, so it’s good that the oceans give that extra CO2 a place to go! Unfortunately, this is not the case. The abundance of CO2 in the ocean raises the acidity of the water which can severely damage the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons of marine animals, such as corals and shellfish. How can seaweed help? Just like trees on land, plants in the water take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. So, it is like planting underwater trees!

So, seaweed is good for the oceans and animals. What about people and animals on land? Is it really that nutritious? Kelp is surprisingly rich in calcium, fiber, iron, and anti-oxidants. Smith says it doesn’t even taste fishy if cooked! Not only is it good for people, but kelp can also be used as fertilizer and animal feed.

The best part about growing kelp is its efficiency. It is a “zero-input” crop since it doesn’t require fertilizer or freshwater. It is also one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Of course, it’s not only kelp that can be farmed in the ocean. Smith’s idea of 3D ocean farming is incredibly efficient because farmers can use the entire water column to farm. This means that crops and seafood can be farmed right on top of each other, so you can grow mussels, seaweed, and oysters all in the same plot of water. Smith’s LIS kelp farm spans 20 acres of ocean marked by white buoys. Black buoys hold up lines of rope underwater where the kelp attaches, just like rows of crops on land.

Smith created the non-profit, GreenWave, to encourage aquaculture. His program provides a two-year ocean farmer training program in New England. The program provides free seed and all the training needed to get an ocean farm started. Keep up the good work, Bren! NESS loves seeing CT locals working to save our seas and using the ocean in innovative, sustainable ways! Maybe you’ll be seeing some of the Sound’s very own sugar kelp at your local grocery store.

Want to get involved? Find out more about GreenWave and the 3D underwater farming initiative at www.greenwave.org. Check out Smith’s interview with 60 minutes at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-seaweed-farming-and-its-surprising-benefits/!

For more resources on aquaculture visit https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/natural-infrastructure-projects-improve-coastal-resilience and https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/aquaculture#science-&-technology.