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Ocean Farming: The Kelp Industry Is Inspiring a Whole New Generation of Foragers

"Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund." ~ Anthony Bourdain

kelp farming


In the 1970’s Cape Cod, Massachusetts was a mecca for foraging Shellfish, Sea Lettuce, and Beach Plum. Raised by adventurous parents who thirsted for that perfect meal from the sea, it was important to us that our Saturday Supper from off-the-beaten-path beach ways and inlets be tucked into places like Falmouth, Sandwich, and Cataumet. Fondly remembering that oysters could be raked off the sea floor with months ending with only the letter “r” in them, I look back on one of my favorite childhood memories. Thinking back, this practice of foraging is engrained in our DNA. Today, once a practice of foraging, the kelp industry (I like to call it Aqua-farming) has become a $15B +/- industry, integrated into the shellfish markets.

I can see myself heading off to Benny’s Supply Store, no longer in business, on the Cape. Pulling up with our dad to pick up patches for waders and a tractor tire tube to hold the foraging basket afloat because we poked a hole in the one we stored in the basement the prior summer. Buying new rope to make a tether - tying it to the wader fastener at my shoulder. I was responsible for ensuring the safety of our take. We did have to adhere to quotas back then too. We would skip out on that Fall soccer game back in Colebrook, and it seemed like a million miles away from reality. Dashing off to Cape Cod for the weekend, checking on the house, and grabbing the last bits of summer before we locked the doors again until Memorial Day.

Of course, that hand-crafted clam/oystering rake with a welded basket affixed to the bridge - the ones that pull the dead turf up in our front yards after a hard New England winter, you know the kind that tears up muck. It was built to scrape the inlet floor for oysters and clams (quahogs). The oyster, in theory, would fall into the basket as we pulled it up from the bottom of the inlet floor. It was the job of every forager to rake and dig in deep enough to catch the shellfish before it buried itself into the sand. It was a race against time and a family sport. I remember yelling, “Dad, I got one - look, look!” Proud of my catch while looking for approval of this newly found mastery.

Steamed clams

I recall a moment in 2018 when I found myself in my garage fashioning a 4” PVC pipe with my son while following a YouTube video search on “How To Make a Clam-Digger” for our Oregon Coast vacation. That summer, I learned about foraging “Geoducks” (pronounced Gooey Ducks) on Gold Beach and cooking them over an open fire at our Rogue River campsite. They are farmed and harvested in Washington State and served in most Asian restaurants throughout Seattle. Just ask Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs - Geoducks, who discovered foraging and farming are both pillars of the food industry. Shellfish and foraging are a culture - one that I am deeply entrenched in and intrigued by the evolution of how shellfishing and seaweed farming are becoming a symbiotic relationship.

Kelp and Seaweed Foraging

The Commercialization of Shellfishing in New England

The 1980s expanded the shellfishing industry, and distributors like Cape Cod Shellfish and Seafood ramped up to sell sustainably harvested clams, oysters, and mussels. They built a 40-year brand on the practices of sound ecological management, while setting up operations to move shellfish via Logan International Airport.

Thanks to guys like Dick Kraus, founder of Aquacultural Research Corporation (ARC) founded a commercial shellfish hatchery in 1960 to build a broader and deeper marketplace for New England. Today, ARC harvests over 100 million oysters and clams each year. Back in 2015, ARC's hatchery needed a facelift. Today, Gail Hart sits on the Board of Directors - guiding the principles of responsible shellfishing and integrated ocean farming practices.

What is Kelp or Seaweed?

I use the terms Kelp and Seaweed interchangeably; truthfully, they differ vastly. Sea vegetables have been around for millions of years, and there has always been a market for those pesky weeds we sometimes think of as an annoyance while swimming on Old Silver Beach. These sea veggies are being added to your soups, salads, gardens, and even toothpaste.

Seaweed is from the algae family, and kelp is the largest group of seaweed and one of the largest consumers of carbon dioxide on the planet, which makes it a unique product and consumable to solve environmental issues to create a whole new wholistic food marketplace. Ocean farmers grow seaweed vertically, using mooring buoys, rope, and carabiners as a harness forming lines of symmetry. These sea veggies range in color from green and red to brown. Seaweed and kelp offer health benefits, chock full of iron and magnesium.

I remember using it as a soil amendment as a child - crushing and mixing oyster shells and dried kelp in a burlap bag. Smashing it with a mallet into smaller, more impactful elements. Then, spreading it across soil - turning it over and letting it sit dormant over the winter months. It is used wet to cover a Clam Bake cooking station on the beach.

Many restaurants buy shellfish and kelp direct from their local ocean farmer to build a decadent setting, symbolic of a New England summer ocean harvest. Farm to Table restaurants throughout New England are adding Kelp meal to their heirloom market gardens - and using that product in their seasonal dishes. Bringing forth the flavor profiles we long for in a slow food movement.

Chatham Kelp is one of three ocean farms permitted on Cape Cod, coupled with a shellfish grant. They are growing from 10-15 lines this season and even sell kelp soap. Ceraldi of Wellfleet partners in purchasing seaweed and shellfish from the trio.

What is Regenerative or Polycultural Ocean Farming?

Down the coast in Connecticut, Thimble Island Ocean Farm has created an ingenious way to maintain responsible shellfish farming stewardship while bringing to market a way to reach consumers more cohesively. Some of us swing by the roadside farmstand, U-pick berries, or even swing by the local meat market to buy a half share of a steer for our freezers. This is known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. James Beard award winner Brendan Smith owns Thimble Island Ocean Farm, where he runs the country's first sustainable 3-D polyculture platform. He took CSA to the next level, bringing Community Supported Fishery (CSF) offerings while fighting climate change. He offers his local product to the community that cherishes his forward thinking in and around environmental stewardship in Connecticut.

Seaweed and Kelp

New York and Connecticut have partnered on The Shellfish and Seaweed Aquaculture Viewer Project. The coalition works together to manage a comprehensive environmental plan for Long Island Sound and its future. The goals are to manage clean water, diverse aquaculture, sound science, and thriving habitats. They forged a plan to ensure healthy waterways and sustainable ocean farming.

What’s On The Menu?

In 2021, UMASS Amherst received a $319,000 grant to bring more environmentally conscious foods to their on-campus menu. They are bringing Korean-centric dishes filled with nutrient-dense kelp, offering umami flavors. White Gate Farm held a cooking class on Sugar Kelp Cookery this past April. The time aligned well with New England’s kelp harvest, teaching locals and visitors how to prepare simple and tasty dishes with sustainable sea vegetables, like Sugar Kelp. The chef prepared a series of recipes as a takeaway from the event. Finally, Miya’s in New Haven launched her sushi specialties first as a catering company as she grew into New Haven’s first sushi bar. Chef Bun Lai is the 2016 White House Champion of Change recipient for sustainable seafood.

Food trends lean toward bringing sea vegetation to the table in many ways. Chefs from all over New England work with sea lettuce, Irish moss, sugar kelp, and nori - integrating them into dishes foraged from along the shore each morning with pairs of shears in hand. Using it to cover their nightly Clam Bake or running it through a dehydrator - producing handmade Furikake for their umami salads.

Kelp and Ocean Farming

What’s Next?

All this research begs the question; can we still go out and forage for shellfish and kelp in the wild? It is an integral part of today’s food culture, and people want to know if they, too, can harvest wild sea vegetables, along with local shellfish. We are a curious culture and yearn to harvest from the intertidal food web around us.

Harvest means to gather and celebrate your take, hosting meals with a purpose. Those dinners come in many shapes and forms, and they are not just for end-of-season meals with family and friends, celebrating the end of summer and all its bounty. Next time you think about hosting a dinner party and planning a menu, think about the backstory of where you will source the food. Ask your family and friends for a dish to share that brings an element of foraging. An act of labor that offers something special from their family recipes. Foraging is part of our legacy, whether forged from fire, raked from the inlet seabed, harvested from the estuary, or game brought down from the mountains. ⧭

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