Brendan Smith is on what you might call a seaweed crusade. The owner/operator of Branford, Connecticut’s Thimble Island Oyster Company has been farming his own shellfish for nearly a decade in what he calls a “diverse, 3-D system” in the Long Island Sound. Edible kelp has been part of Smith’s vertical, multi-trophic system for a while now. The sea vegetable grows with mussels and scallops along a series of long trellis-like lines just beneath the surface, while clams and oysters grow in cages below. Recently, however, he’s come to view what he calls “sea greens” as more and more crucial—not only for his business, but for oceans and their ecosystems.
Smith says he’s seeing oysters suffer the toils of climate-related shifts. For instance, his farm was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, and he’s paying close attention to ocean acidification’s effects on West Coast hatcheries, where baby, or “seed” oysters, have been dying off thanks to a carbon-induced rise in acidity.
“Oysters are really being impacted by climate change,” says Smith. “Acidification makes them less disease resistant, and kills a lot of oyster seeds.” As he sees it, these bivalves are on the front lines because they’re not only very sensitive to subtle shifts in the ocean, but they’re also stationary and can’t relocate to friendlier waters, like more mobile sea creatures.
“I was seeing massive die-offs, and I think that’s the new normal,” says Smith. The seaweed he grows, on the other hand, is thriving. As many as 24 tons of the stuff could grow in a mere five months time, taking up an area that’s about 900 square feet. It requires no inputs, and has a very low impact on aquatic ecosystems. Even better, it cleans nitrogen-based pollution (i.e. sewage, fertilizer, etc.) out of the water where it grows.
Of course, none of these eco-friendly qualities really matter unless more seaweed begins making it onto menus and into grocery stores. And aside from the delicate squares of nori that many of us enjoy wrapped around rice and fish and doused in soy sauce, Americans are not in the habit of eating sizable portions of sea greens. At least not yet.
Some chefs, like David Santos, of the Manhattan restaurant Louro, think this flavorful, high-nutrient food might just be ripe for the foodie world to embrace, especially as New York chefs hunt for unique, hyper-local ingredients.
“It’s rare to get to use something that a lot of people aren’t cooking with,” Santos says of this local product. “I was one of maybe two or three people in New York. The chefs at the top restaurants start using it first, but it will trickle down over the next few years.”
Santos spent last winter experimenting with Smith’s kelp, first trying it in side dishes—such as an Asian cabbage salad to complement a pork belly entrée or in place of the kale in a Portuguese soup—then in dishes that made seaweed the main event. The most successful of the latter, he says, involved kelp pasta prepared in the fra diavolo style with spicy tomato sauce and shrimp. Not only was it tasty, says Santos, but it also caught the eye of diners looking for gluten-free, low-carb options.
Santos plans to reintegrate Smith’s kelp into his seasonal menu this winter, and will continue testing its limits in an array of cuisines. “It has all the essences of the ocean without the salt; that’s how I describe the flavor profile,” he says.
In addition to selling the product to chefs in Manhattan, Smith is also working on developing a shelf-stable product made with kelp noodles. The hope, he says, is to encourage a new form of “ocean vegetarianism.”
For instance, many of us have grown accustomed to getting omega-3 fatty acids from fish, when in fact fish get it from eating algae and seaweed. So eating like a fish could be nearly as beneficial as eating fish themselves. Sea vegetables have also been found in recent studied to be a promising source of protein, as well as minerals like calcium, and cancer-fighting antioxidants.
If ocean vegetarianism takes off, Smith stresses, the traditional model of harvesting wild seaweed from the ocean won’t be sustainable for long. “It’s important to me that what I’m doing is not extractive,” he says. Instead, Smith gets kelp “seed” from the University of Connecticut, which grows them on long strings Smith can wrap around his boat’s long lines. And although he has one of very few domestic seaweed farms—Ocean Approved in Maine was the first open-water kelp farm in the U.S.—he sees demand picking up, for both food and biofuel, another trend in seaweed research.
“There are four other [seaweed farmers] about to permit in the Long Island Sound,” says Smith.
A real market for kelp and other sea vegetables could also help make the “artisanal fishing” world—the only option for small-scale fishermen these days—a more viable, consistent line of work. But in the meantime, Smith has his work cut out for him. “To get there, I have to make kelp the new kale,” he says.