Science for Everyone

Kelp Aquaculture at Hurricane Island!

Guest blog post by Communications Intern Stef Burchill

On the coast of the North side of Hurricane Island, snuggled between two small white buoys is a kelp aquaculture site. Amongst the waves there is one long submerged line that the students at Deer Isle-Stonington High School seeded with kelp spores last fall. Sugar Kelp, Saccharina latissima, is naturally found in cold Northeastern American waters. In the wild, they need a rocky substrate or coastline to attach their holdfast to.

Ocean aquaculture may become a solution to the degradation our agricultural systems have been facing over the last century. Large-scale food operations with big monocrops, such as corn and soybeans, result in soils that are very susceptible to issues of erosion and nutrient deprivation. When large areas have these issues they become more difficult to work with, and need far more chemical fertilizers, machinery, and water pumped to them, which causes waste and more dependence on local and outsourced aquifers. A driving issue that started the problems in our current food systems is that they are disconnected from the natural environments and seasonal patterns that the individual foods originated from.

Many naturalists have suggested over the years that one possible solution to this disconnect is to simply begin with a local food movement. Putting the foods that grow seasonally in an area into one’s grocery cart can create a powerful community. Building up this community atmosphere fosters a self-sustaining motive, thus keeping the income for local businesses sustainable and maintaining healthy local farm and land practices.

MS Marine Ecology student getting into the kelp harvest on Hurricane Island

Kelp has been diversifying the portfolios of Maine fishermen and lobstermen during their off-season because it is a crop that grows best in wintertime (once it is established, sugar kelp grows 5-7 centimeters per day as it continues to pump out its spindly blades!) and can be harvested early March through to the early fall season. Researchers at NOAA in conjunction with researchers at Universities and other Institutes have begun to study if the process of photosynthesis in kelp may be a potential aid to issues of ocean acidification. The kelp takes in CO2 from the water, and replaces it with oxygen—much like plants and trees do for our air. If the research studies continue to be positive, and we implement more aquaculture off of our coastlines, we could begin to mediate some of the pollution that is going into our ocean systems. This concept is currently being investigated at Oceans Approved, an aquaculture site in Southern Maine, where they hope to use kelp to locally decrease CO2 around shellfish aquaculture sites.  Paul Dobbins of Oceans Approved was the one who graciously came out to help us find the site for our own kelp farm last summer!

Not only is kelp aquaculture good for our coast, and for local economic sustainability, kelp can greatly improve one’s health! This nutrient rich macro alga contains iodine, potassium, calcium, protein, and Omega-3 fatty acids—similar to those found in fish.

Once all of the little microorganism grazers and biofoulers are removed from the blades, kelp is ready to be cooked into many fun and tasty dishes! A few personal favorites I enjoy are: seaweed salad (which is a favorite in many Americanized Asian restaurants), miso soup, super food kale and seaweed salad, as a side dish to fresh caught fish, and a Hurricane Island favorite (even tested by the pickiest of middle schoolers)—chocolate seaweed pudding!

Our educators and researchers make kelp harvesting accessible to our student programs, by first educating them on the process of setting up a kelp aquaculture site and the benefits of kelp while in a lab setting. Armed with this background knowledge, students can then cruise over in one of our boats and harvest the kelp themselves. Teaching the next generation of thinkers why sustainable food systems matter, will someday create a world where they matter in the public eye. Here at Hurricane Island we will continue to promote healthy oceans, and healthy people by growing our aquaculture one spindly frond at a time.

MS Marine Ecology students showing off with their harvested kelp

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