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Mature kelp being raised from the Peconic Bay. (Credit: The Suffolk Times file photo)

When chef and cookbook author Will Horowitz was a kid growing up in Orient, his family had an annual clambake with mounds of seaweed gathered on the beach, and packed in layers around the food. 

Whoever was the littlest kid had to pick up all the seaweed, he recalled. 

“Typically, what we were looking for was rockweed or bladderwreck,” Horowitz said. “There used to be more.” 

Horowitz currently sources seaweeds from Connecticut for his restaurants and says he’d like to have a dependable source for North Fork kelp. 

“I cook with it now quite a bit,” he said. “At my restaurants in the East Village we would cure our meats or fish in it. The little tips and buds are pretty tender, but we would braise it first to soften it up. The funny thing about rockweed or bladderwreck is you get these really sophisticated notes of chocolate if you sauté it a little in a dry pan.”

Wild seaweeds, like bay scallops and wild oysters, were once so plentiful in our waters, they washed up on the beach in piles. Used in cooking and for fuel, farmers even drove their wagons down to the shore for a load of seaweed to fertilize their crops, as Indigenous people had done before them.

The days of wild kelp growing in profusion are gone, but the potential to replace it with farmed kelp gives hope for a more sustainable and profitable future. This year’s Long Island crop, planted in December, will reach maturity in May and is mostly still experimental. But with about a dozen Long Island farmers now experienced kelp growers, count on seeing local kelp on a dining table near you in the very near future.

The Taste of the Sea

In the world of fine dining, sea vegetables such as kelp, nori and wakame are a favorite of chefs, especially in dishes defined by Asian flavors. Toasted kelp is like a blue corn tortilla chip of the sea. It is full of umami, a taste associated with meat and mushrooms, is a great source of minerals and is almost fat-free. But like most seafood, fresh kelp is perishable and must be eaten or preserved shortly after harvest. 

North Fork chefs have long been excited about the potential for local seaweed. At a 2017 kelp-tasting event at Noah’s in Greenport, chef Noah Schwartz served a dazzling array of original dishes, all of which made use of 40 pounds of local kelp harvested through an experimental program. Schwartz wrapped a tenderized strip of savory kelp around a chunk of seared yellowfin tuna, followed by kelp sushi rolls and a kelp noodle salad that combined savory and slippery translucent noodles with spring vegetables and local cherry tomatoes. Seared sea scallops were sprinkled with kelp on a bed of kelp risotto. Dessert was a kelp-enriched chocolate cake with candied kelp on top. A crowd of seaweed enthusiasts polished off every crumb.

Research changed the game

Until recently, it was thought that kelp could only be grown in deep, cold water and that the relatively shallow and warm water where much of Long Island’s aquaculture takes place is unsuitable. That changed when Stony Brook University kelp researcher Mike Doall planted kelp on Paul McCormick’s Great Gun Oyster Farm in Moriches Bay in 2020 and it grew better in a few feet of water than kelp grown at any of the other test sites, including the ones in the deepest waters. 

“That was a paradigm-shifting event on my farm,” Paul McCormick said. “Unlike almost all farms, we are located adjacent to the mainland. We are very close to the shoreline. We get a lot of nutrients.”

McCormick says his kelp got noticed. 

“I’ve had countless chefs, very eager to purchase kelp and also interest from wineries that want to use it on their crops as a fertilizer,” he said. “I could see the restaurants out here creating a one-month kelp season and generate enormous interest.” 

Kelp will play an important role in developing aquaculture by allowing farmers to diversify their crops and extend their markets, making their businesses much more resilient in times of crisis. Stephen Schott, a marine botanist at Cornell University Cooperative Extension and the author of a 2019 feasibility study on kelp aquaculture in New York described the current state of the industry as, “one clam farm, primarily oysters, with one market, the half-shell market.” And if you want an example of what can go wrong, he suggested you look no further than 2020 when oyster farmers were devastated when their restaurant customers closed due to COVID-19. Many oysters remained unharvested and if not for farm stand sales and a federal program to buy unsold oysters to form reefs in New York Harbor, the situation could have been even worse.

According to Schott, the DEC and Suffolk County still have a lot of work to do writing regulatory guidelines for processing and selling kelp, but if all goes well, New York farmers will harvest a commercial crop in 2023. 

The challenges farmers face

Oyster farmers who want to diversify their crops by adding kelp are anticipating new layers of regulations and licensing requirements coming soon. 

“We are the ones who actually have the equipment and knowledge and skills to do it in these challenging waters,” said Matt Ketcham, owner of Peconic Gold Oysters. “The bureaucracy is unreal.”

Once licensed, farmers will face the realities of growing, processing and selling their crop. The growing part is easy: Kelp grows on lines suspended above the oysters in a deep-water farm and on lines strung between bags of oysters in a shallow-water farm. This 3D farming is one of the great benefits of growing kelp and oysters in the same place. Another plus is that kelp needs almost no tending during its growing season, which is roughly December through May. Kelp is harvested, processed and sold in the spring. The active time for kelp is downtime for oyster farming.

Doall, of the Gobler Lab at the School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, has conducted research and training on kelp farming for years to ensure that East End oyster farmers are supported as they start growing kelp. Doall has produced kelp spores and seeded oyster farms in the Peconic Bay, Gardiners Bay and Moriches Bay. He set up this year’s crop of kelp at eight sites, including two farms worked by Jason Masters and Karen Rivara in Southold Bay.

If we grow it, will they come?

As Long Island farmers demonstrate they know how to grow kelp, the challenges of processing and selling it loom larger.

“We know it’s delicious, but how do we sell it?” Horowitz said. “It’s great for fertilizer and fuel, but we don’t have a handle yet on how we turn it into food products to generate high value to incentivize farmers.” 

Chefs agree the best kelp for eating raw is baby kelp and some farmers will harvest part of their crop early for the high-end restaurant market. This product is more translucent and tender than mature kelp and can be used in sushi wraps and seaweed salads. Kelp that is not sold raw must be processed. It can be blanched and vacuum-sealed, extending its shelf life by a few weeks, or it can be flash frozen or dried for longer storage. 

Late-season kelp that has been allowed to stay in the water past its prime for food can be used for fertilizer, benefiting the environment by substituting a natural fertilizer for chemicals that bring nitrates into the Long Island ecosystem to foul the waters.

Horowitz, an entrepreneur as well as a chef, is developing a line of North Fork-based food products using kelp, starting with dog treats, which he plans to introduce next year.

“This has always been a mission for me, to do anything I possibly can to get kelp into people’s hands,”he said. “We know how to farm it, we have farmers who want to do it and now we’ll figure out.”