Published in The Day April 14. 2018 | Updated April 15. 2018
By Martha Shanahan, Day staff writer
Several feet under the surface of Fishers Island Sound, the newest agricultural crop to attract Connecticut farmers is growing. Brown and slightly translucent, the draw of kelp — hailed by some as a sea-grown superfood — has brought three separate business ventures into the waters off the Groton and Stonington shoreline.
The state Department of Agriculture began issuing permits for kelp cultivation in Connecticut waters last year, and officials are still developing regulations for commercial seaweed cultivation in Connecticut.
Jean Paul Vellotti has been growing kelp in the waters off Norwalk for several years. While working at Copps Island Oysters, a decades-old oyster farm in Norwalk, he began experimenting with kelp with the help of the University of Connecticut.
Thanks to the UConn and Sea Grant support, Vellotti said, kelp — already a health food staple and common harvest in large commercial farms off Asian coasts and in American West Coast waters — slowly is making its way into Atlantic waters and onto plates.
The seaweed grows fast, doesn’t need fresh water, can withstand bad weather and is full of iodine and nutrients.
Vellotti starts the sugar kelp seed on twine wrapped around pipes kept in fish tanks full of seawater. In February, he attached the kelp to 20-foot ropes held up by buoys in the state waters between Bluff Point and Avery Point in Groton, tending to it as it grew into long ribbons destined to be flash frozen, dried or cooked fresh in soups or fish dishes.
Farming the kelp requires plenty of work and equipment — “it’s not set-and-forget,” Vellotti said — but much of the needed expertise and tools are similar to the ones he has after years in the shellfishing industry. While states like Maine have long allowed people to collect wild-grown kelp for sale, farming and selling kelp for human consumption in Connecticut requires permission from the state Bureau of Aquaculture, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Cold weather and several March storms set Vellotti’s harvesting schedule back several weeks; he plans to harvest the kelp and take the buoys and rope out of the water at the end of May.
The challenge for farmers is to find out who will buy it.
“We have a well-set market with prices and dealers ready to buy shellfish,” said Anoushka Concepcion, a marine aquaculture specialist at Connecticut Sea Grant, which distributes federal funds toward marine research and aquaculture research and has helped develop regulations and guidelines for growing kelp in Connecticut. “But we don’t have a set market for seaweed.”
Vellotti sells his Norwalk seaweed to restaurants: one chef fries it, another puts it in soup or burgers. Vellotti also has attracted interest from a company that makes kelp chips, and he is considering selling fresh kelp at a farmer’s market in New York City.
“That’s one of the tricky things with the kelp,” Vellotti said. “Now we know how to grow it, and we can grow it to scale … (but) we don’t even have a market price. It’s all over the place.”
Brendan Smith, who began growing kelp at a site in Branford in 2012 after Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy ruined much of his shellfish crop there, founded the nonprofit Greenwave in 2015 to support other kelp farmers with financial and permitting help to get started.
Jay and Suzie Douglas, who own the Mechanic Street Marina in Stonington on the Pawcatuck River, got support from Greenwave to start a kelp farm in a 10-acre lease area that they will be harvesting for the first time in May. Smith and Greenwave paid for two years’ worth of seed and helped them through the permitting process, which can take up to a year between the state and federal requirements.
They plan to sell their harvest to Sea Greens Farms, the processing arm of Greenwave, for about $1 per pound. Jay Douglas said he sees the kelp as a potential way to make money when the marina is quiet.
“This is kind of helping out with an income stream over the winter, when our marina isn’t really making money,” he said.
Douglas said he and his wife have helped Smith cultivate a kelp farm with a lease in Smith’s name a few hundred feet from Vellotti’s this winter. An earlier lease Smith applied for near Ram Island off the coast of Stonington was not approved, Douglas said.
Greenwave’s website also lists among its clients a Rhode Island farm in the waters off Point Judith in Narrangansett, R.I.
Smith, who did not respond to a request for an interview, has called sugar kelp “the new kale.”
Vellotti is reluctant to draw a comparison to the leafy green, which he said only tastes good “if you close your eyes and chew.”
“Kelp is more like a coconut,” he said. “There’s just so many things you can do with it,” he said. “We’re right at the cusp of getting this out there and getting people to see it.”
Vellotti and the Douglases are both hoping to break even with their harvests this year — neither is expecting to make a profit in their first year.
But they’re optimistic even if kelp doesn’t become the next trendy leafy green.
“There’s more and more interest, there’s more and more people wanting to farm, and more and more people interested in eating it,” Douglas said.