No matter how much time Charles Yarish spends aboard his 23-foot Boston Whaler Dauntless, he can’t stop thinking about what’s happening beneath the hull. “I fish principally in Long Island Sound, but I’ll fish anyplace in the world when I have a chance,” he says. “I’ll go after bluefish and striped bass. I like sport fish. I’ll go after fluke in the summer months.”
And it’s far more than the fish that preoccupy his mind. Yarish is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. He has also spent decades thinking about what’s possible underwater with kelp — which types grow best, how they should be planted, ideal ways to cultivate the plants and how to harvest them for everything from food to biofuel.
Yarish got to thinking that some of his go-to angling holes just might have another, unrealized purpose. “My favorite fishing ground, in the winter months it’s not being used for anything,” he says. “There’s a shellfishing family there on Long Island Sound, in the Norwalk Islands area, and he was one of our test farms. It was phenomenal.”
The federal government seems to think the idea of kelp farming is phenomenal, too. This past autumn, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources, or MARINER, program awarded 18 grants to researchers from coast to coast, hoping to jump-start America’s efforts to expand and commercialize the kinds of test farms that Yarish saw thriving in Long Island Sound.
Grants included $5.7 million to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, where Yarish is part of a team working on a test farm in Nantucket Sound, as well as laboratory research on germplasm (basically, trying to figure out which kelp “seeds” grow best in U.S. waters). Another grant, for $500,000, went to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, which is going to apply local knowledge of commercial fishing techniques to ways that commercial-scale kelp farms might be harvested.
“The Alaska folks have such a large fishing fleet doing nothing in the dead of winter that they are going to be in charge of developing new technologies for harvesting and storing the kelp,” Yarish says.
A $1.3 million grant went to the University of New England in Maine, which will expand its small kelp farm off Wood Island and work with the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland to develop a 3-D, tank-tested model for best farming practices.
Barry Costa-Pierce, director of UNE’s Center
for Excellence in Marine Sciences, says that team’s goal, in concert with the others, is to make the United States a global leader in kelp farming. “We’ll be coming up with a sophisticated model that can be used throughout the world for larger-scale kelp farms, and we’ll have that model validated,” Costa-Pierce told Soundings. “That’s the most important thing. It’s fine to sit behind a computer screen, but we have tremendous oceanographic operations up here. We can monitor this thing throughout the winter.”
Kelp farms pose no hazards to recreational boats, the researchers say. The underwater test arrays that most boaters haven’t even noticed — from Long Island Sound to the coast of Maine and in place for several years now — start out in a lab, where researchers get wild kelp plants to release their spores onto a string. After five or six weeks, Yarish says, the spores start growing into plants. The string with the juvenile plants is wrapped around a piece of PVC pipe and moved onto a long line that’s about a half-inch wide. The whole array is then set with a mooring in about 30 to 45 feet of water, with the long line staying about 6 feet below the surface (and most propellers).
“The kelp plants themselves are not buoyant,” Yarish says. “They face down unless there’s current. Then they face to the side.”
Planting is typically done during November
and December, Yarish says, with the in-water growing season during the winter, when few boaters are around. The arrays are harvested by May, giving commercial fishermen something to do during the off-season. “Harvesting is a very simple process,” Yarish says. “You get one end of your long line, raise it up with the winch on a lobster boat, hook your winch to the line, and haul it into the boat.”
The federal government wants to expand that simple process because kelp can be used for multiple purposes and might also solve farming hurdles on land. Researchers already know the technology works; the teams that received the grants are now trying to figure out how to bring it to commercial scale.
“How do we meet growing global biofuel needs and also meet the 50 to 100 percent increase in demand for food expected by 2050?” Scott Lindell, a principal investigator from the Woods Hole team, asked in the UConn Today newsletter. “Seaweed farming avoids the growing competition for fertile land, energy-intensive fertilizers and freshwater resources associated with traditional farming.”
Looking at U.S. farming issues in this way is a relatively new practice. While kelp farming is commonplace in China, Korea and Japan, it is mostly unheard of in America. “In 2009, we had no kelp farms in the United
States,” Yarish says, adding that the Department of Energy issued the grants to help experts not only play catch-up, but also take the global lead. “They see the big picture for the United States for the next 10 years, and they got all the players together and put the money on the table.”
The ideal location for kelp farming off the East Coast, he says, is from New York to the Canadian border, so that’s where boaters can expect to see the most activity. “Anytime the water temperatures in the winter are 40 degrees and higher,” he says, “that’s the sweet spot for growing kelp in the winter.”
In Maine, Costa-Pierce says, UNE’s test farm is going to grow from a 600-foot line to about 4 acres. Sensors will be placed throughout the new plantings to gather data about what, precisely, happens to the plants in the ocean environment.
The data will then go to the Naval Academy, which has a test tank that can re-create ocean conditions. “We have instruments on the bottom looking up at it, on the sides looking at the ropes and the kelp itself, and we can look at how it performs in the field,” Costa-Pierce says. “Then at the academy, we can set up a model system in that wave tank and replicate those forces, so our models will be valid down to less than 3 feet. We’ll be able to look at, when a storm comes through, what is predicted to occur? That will lead us to better siting, better design of new systems, where we put them in the water column, different types of lines and anchors.”
Until now, he says, researchers have focused on the kelp itself. With the new grants, teams will look not only at how farms might be built better near shore, but also at how they might be moved offshore to produce enough kelp for bioplastics, large-scale energy uses and more.
“Because we have some really brilliant ocean engineers at the U.S. Naval Academy, we’re going to be allowed to look at some new engineering,” Costa-Pierce says. “Up until this point, we’ve been talking about lines and buoys at the surface. We’re not convinced that it’s the best way to go. We’re going to be looking at some new technologies, smart technologies, where all you might see at the surface is a lobster buoy, and that would be it.”
Teams are taking into account everything from visual pollution at the water’s surface to farming structures that don’t entangle whales, seals or other marine life, Costa-Pierce says. “We’re also developing autonomous vehicles that will be our eyes in the marine environment,” Yarish adds, “to do things for us that divers would normally be doing.”
Yarish is a scientist first and foremost, but he’s also excited about the project as a fisherman. Among other things, he says, the kelp arrays suck nutrients out of the water that otherwise could sustain algae blooms. When the arrays are harvested, the nutrients leave the water altogether, making it likely that having more kelp farms will reduce the blooms that have choked off fish and other species.
“You get more bang for your buck to have kelp farms farther west in Long Island Sound than on the eastern end,” Yarish says. “The western end is where you have hypoxia. A farm on the western end — that can remove a lot of the nitrogen, which is in excess and causing harmful algae blooms. Our greatest yields on Long Island Sound have been when you go west into the sound. We have farms right now going from Stonington [Connecticut] all the way to the Norwalk Islands. I even had an experimental farm at the mouth of the Bronx River in New York City coastal waters. It did very well.”
The longest-term farms, he says, have been off Connecticut’s Thimble Islands since 2011. They’re operated by Greenwave, a nonprofit corporation that Yarish says is a partner in the current efforts.
None of those farms, he says, have shown a negative impact on the ecosystem. In fact, researchers have noted the opposite. “The fish are going to love it,” he says of the grant-based expansions. “One of the things that we’ve seen in and around kelp farms, we seem to have an accumulation of fish habitats, which is great. Fish accumulate where they have structure of habitat. We see that developing nicely.”
People who own leases for the kelp farms will ultimately decide whether anglers will be able to fish there, but Yarish and Costa-Pierce say there’s every reason to believe that anglers will have access to new options. “There’s some very clear information about artificial reefs creating some damn good fishing,” Costa-Pierce says. “Nobody’s going to prevent anybody from doing recreational fishing around these things. There are no plans to cordon off these areas from other uses.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.