Kelp Farming Sees a Rise In Interest On the Cape

May 10, 2018

WHOI researcher Scott Lindell holds up a piece of sugar kelp at his lab in Woods Hole.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

Kelp farming is on the rise around the Cape and Islands, as more growers are finding reasons to love this ocean crop. From researchers like Scott Lindell at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who want to farm the crop for biofuel, to shellfishermen in Chatham who want to sell it to food markets, the past two years have seen an increase in permits and requests for permits for kelp fishing. 

In 2015, there were zero kelp farming permits, currently there are two in Oak Bluffs and Chilmark, and there are five more permit requests in the pipeline.

Lindell has been studying different strains of sugar kelp at his lab in Woods Hole, and has been collecting different types of it from along the New England coast. His hope is that in twenty years or less, cars may be able to use seaweed - instead of corn - as a biofuel.

"If you were to take something like the space of Iowa and farm it for seaweeds, you would supply about ten percent of the transportation needs of the U.S. in biofuels," he said. 

Sugar kelp is a brownish colored seaweed that can grow to be over six feet long, and is found naturally in oceans around the world. It's also a popular species farmed for food and cosmetics in Asia - it has a mildly sweet taste and a slight crunch to it - and it’s where most people are now focusing their effort in Massachusetts. 

And of most importance to Lindell, its sweetness is what could make it a good biofuel.

"This sort of kelp in particular is very high in carbohydrates and sugars," he said. "And through a fermentation process will release those sugars and they can be turned into ethanol."

He goes on to describe some of the sugar kelp he's collected from Lubec, Maine, recently.

"They have very long hollow stipes and the blades are pretty vigorous as well," he said. 

Stipes are what you might casually call the stem of seaweed, and blades would be the leaves, or the long, ribbon-like section of the seaweed. In an indoor tank, his research group grows hundreds of tiny bits of seaweed that are hybrids of different strains found in the wild. This seaweed will eventually be planted on lines in the ocean. He's looking at crossing different strains and experimenting to grow the most ideal seaweed for creating fuel.

"Sometimes the stipes are thin, sometimes the blades are thin, what drives that? I’ve got to guess there are differences in how fast those blades grow and what the quality of the tissues are in terms of how much sugar there have, these are all things we’re just scratching the surface to understand," he said. 

And outside of the lab, there’s already been increased interest in growing this plant. Chris Schilacci, is an aquaculture specialist with the state’s Department of Marine Fisheries. He said he’s seen interest peaking in the last few years because shellfishermen can grow kelp in their off season, and it grows fast - at a rate of about 2 feet per month.

"It’s a crop that doesn’t require much feeding, and it grows in the winter, so from a farmer’s perspective it’s a great way to maintain an active farm throughout the winter in Massachusetts," he said. 

Right now there isn’t much competition because it’s not a developed industry yet, so he said there's greater interest. But there are also challenges to seaweed farming. For one, farming on an icy sea isn’t easy.

"It’s a tough business, it involves getting out on the boat in the middle of the winter routinely checking on the kelp in a period that’s not really conducive to being out on the water in Massachusetts," he said.

But out in Chatham, some people are ready to dive into what they see as a wide open business. Jamie Bassett, Carl Douglas and Richard Curtiss are a group of shellfishermen who’ve recently applied for a permit to create what could be the Cape’s largest kelp farm. 

He and his group are looking to farm kelp in 62 acres of the ocean about 2 miles from the Chatham shore, and are hoping to make it into a year round business, even if there isn’t necessarily a market for it yet.

"We think that we’ll be able to persevere whether it be the culinary market, the agricultural market, the industrial market or the cosmetic market," he said. "So we’re going to push forward and do the best we can to discover existing and new markets." 

As for a business model, it’s far from certain.  But Bassett says that’s okay.

"We’d like to pioneer forward and see if we can do something, there’s no reward without risk," he said. 

In the next year, they hope to be operating and generating at minimum, 150 pounds of kelp and selling wholesale to retailers in New England.