New legislation will allow kelp cultivation in the Peconic estuary

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law on Dec. 7 allowing Suffolk County to lease underwater land in the Peconic Estuary for the cultivation of kelp and other algae, according to a press release of State.

The legislation will allow kelp aquaculture in 110,000 acres of underwater land in Gardiners and Peconic Bays. The land was originally ceded to the county by the state for shellfish farming.

Farmers, however, will not grow kelp immediately.

“While it is good news that this bill is signed, people need to understand that Suffolk County will now have to put in place a whole new program to map and establish suitable cultivation areas for kelp.” said Matt Ketcham, owner of an underwater farm in Great Peconic Bay. “It will take years of public meetings and public comment periods. In addition to this, the [state Department of Environmental Conservation] will also have to generate new rules and regulations regarding the cultivation of kelp.

Mr Ketcham has been trying to expand his operation to include kelp farming for years, but “the industry is relentlessly stifled by bureaucracy” and he is no longer eligible to participate in an existing kelp pilot program after finishing. its lease transfer to Suffolk County in July.

He noted that over 90% of East End oyster farmers are included in the Suffolk County Aquaculture Rental Program in Peconic Bay.

“Without any swift action from the county, our local aquaculturists will not be able to participate in this exciting new industry and expand our operations to be successful year round,” he said via email. “The Long Island Strait, arguably the most promising body of water for fishermen interested in kelp culture, is not included in this bill. Meanwhile, Connecticut growers across the Sound are developing markets for seaweed and related products while keeping employees busy during the winter months.

Kelp, a type of cold-water seaweed, typically grows from November through May, when oysters are dormant, according to Ketcham. There are already kelp farms in the Northeast, and Maine has a “robust seaweed farming industry,” said Pete Topping, executive director and bay warden of Peconic Baykeepers – but New York, on the southern edge of the species’ range, took a long time to enter. the exchange.

Michael Doall, oyster farmer and kelp researcher at Stony Brook University, said the crop has yet to be grown commercially in New York City. But the industry has, in recent years, proven its worth in other northern states such as Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“There are enough people doing it and there are enough companies forming that they have to make money, that’s my point of view there,” he said. . “Most of the northeastern states are now kelp farming, so New York is way behind the times. ”

Mr Topping said growing kelp can help shellfish farmers to diversify their crops. But the reason he finds the recently passed bill a big deal, along with other environmentalists, is that the industry can help improve water quality.

Kelp grows in the winter, when shellfish are dormant, absorbing nutrients – including nitrogen, which is “the number one enemy behind harmful algal blooms,” Topping said – and extracting the dioxide of carbon in water through photosynthesis, thereby increasing pH levels.

“One of the biggest water quality issues that Long Island and coastal communities around the world face is that too much nitrogen is being dumped into local waters. And when you have too much nitrogen dumped into the water, it can fuel harmful algal blooms, ”Doall said.

Algal blooms mask the light, killing species such as eelgrass, and when the blooms die, their decomposition causes hypoxia – a depletion of oxygen in the water that can lead to the death of fish.

A recent water quality report from Stony Brook University scientist Chris Gobler found that every large bay and estuary on Long Island was suffering from a lack of oxygen and harmful algal blooms this summer. in a “double assault of climate change and an excessive nitrogen load”. The conditions have become a “new normal”, according to the report.

Ocean acidification, which is also a problem Long Island’s waters face, is harmful to marine animals that form shells, such as oysters, clams, scallops and mussels. “When they’re really small, small changes in the pH of the water can cause the shell to dissolve,” Doall said. In turn, this can lead to fatalities. “The growth of kelp, especially near seashells, like on an oyster farm, creates what’s called a halo effect, where it kind of creates a pH buffer around that localized area,” M explained. . Topping. “And actually, you know, help those seashells grow. And then in the spring, the algae can be harvested.

Kelp is also an “unfed culture”. They don’t require any input, Mr Doall said – no feed, no pesticides, nothing added.

“What I really like about this restorative aquaculture is a win-win situation,” he added. “Not only is it good for the environment, it is also good economically, so that people can earn a living and create jobs.

Kelp farming is also a cultural victory for Long Island, he said. A native of Long Island, Mr. Doall grew up on the South Shore in the 1970s. He remembers the heyday of the clam industry. Restorative aquaculture can help restore some of this heritage.

“Long Island, we are surrounded by water and we have a very rich maritime heritage that dates back centuries,” he said. “A lot of that has, over time, diminished – there is less and less connection to water as fishing decreases and aquaculture is kind of bringing back that maritime heritage. This is my personal opinion.

While the bill recently passed by Governor Hochul is a “very positive” and necessary first step for the industry, Doall wants to be clear: it does not specifically allow the cultivation of kelp in the rental program. Suffolk County aquaculture in the Peconic Estuary.

“It has often been said and presented as, no pun intended, but legalizing kelp in New York City,” he said. “Not really the case. This is specifically for the Suffolk County Aquaculture Rental Program in the Peconic Estuary.

The underwater land ceded from the state to Suffolk County for the rental program was originally intended only for shellfish farming, he said. “This did not include [kelp] fish farming. This is why the law had to be changed, ”he said.

One of the reasons the commercial kelp industry has yet to emerge in New York City is that there is not yet a regulatory structure in place from DEC.

“They are doing it and trying to put the regulatory structure in place, and people are already starting to submit permits,” Doall said. He doesn’t think kelp farming will happen this year, but it’s possible Long Island will see commercial kelp farms next year.

Now it’s up to the county to determine how to run the program. The bill states that the County of Suffolk must establish rental cards for kelp that do not conflict with other uses.

“I hope there are changes to make it easier and they just say, hey, the shellfish growing area is now also a shellfish and kelp growing area. But the way I’m reading the bill right now, they’re going to have to… make new maps for the kelp and that could be a long process, ”Doall said.

He added that he was concerned it would take a long time to happen. Mr Ketcham echoed a similar sentiment.

“Industry leaders are ready to invest time, money and effort while using their knowledge, equipment and skills to further develop this industry. We just need the opportunity. Unfortunately, it requires a lot more paperwork, ”he said.

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