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Suffolk Closeup: Good eating, good environment

“Kelp Help” is the title of an article in this summer’s issue of Sierra magazine, the publication of the Sierra Club. Its subtitle: “Can farming seaweed put the brakes on climate change?”

“Seaweed agriculture,” the academic publication Frontiers in Marine Science has reported, is “the fastest-growing component of global food production.”

Seaweed farming has come on strong worldwide, and it is being developed now in Suffolk County as a way to counter a number of severe environmental problems.

Dr. Christopher Gobler, co-director of the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University and a professor within the university’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, commented last month about how a small area of kelp can absorb as much nitrogen as several of the new Innovative/Advanced (I/A) septic systems being installed to reduce nitrogen emanating from cesspools. As to climate change, he notes how kelp soaks up carbon dioxide.

His team has been harvesting kelp from test “farms” in Moriches Bay, Great South Bay, Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound.

The kelp of choice — sugar kelp — is native to this area. A brown rubbery plant, it can grow underwater astonishingly quickly in fronds up to 15-feet long and. Also, sugar kelp appears, said Dr. Gobler, to contain compounds lethal to the red algae that can infect shellfish and cause sickness, or death, in people. Kelp can also be used as fertilizer.

And, moreover, it’s edible.

Charity Robey, the Reporter’s feature writer and columnist, attended a “kelp-tasting” sponsored by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program at Noah’s restaurant in Greenport, and she received, she noted, “a much-needed grounding in the current state of kelp farming,” as well as learning “a number of new ways to use kelp in cooking.”

“Toasted kelp,” Ms. Robey wrote, “is like a blue-corn-tortilla-chip-of-the-sea. It is full of umami, a taste that is also associated with meat and mushrooms…”

Frontiers in Marine Science declared that “seaweed agriculture … offers a slate of opportunities to mitigate” climate change. The largest seaweed-producing nations are China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Sierra says: “Seaweed farming has promise. In addition to sequestering carbon, it can provide habitat for fish and mitigate local effects of ocean acidification.”

“Still,” declared the magazine, “the most effective way to sequester carbon is to not release it in the first place.” Quite correct, but this and seaweed farming are not mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, in the realm of aquaculture, there’s the push underway in many parts of Suffolk for growing oysters, not only because they taste wonderful but for the environmental good they can do.

“Oysters eat murky water for lunch,” notes the website of the Save The Great South Bay Oyster Project. “If we bring them back in volume, they’ll clean the bay better and faster than any human can. Did you know that one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. What could that mean for The Great South Bay? It’s been calculated that 5,000 acres of oyster farms in the bay would be enough to deal with 147% of the nitrogen problem. A clean bay and 5,000 acres of oysters, with each acre producing $100,000+ in revenue. A revitalized bay and a revitalized shellfishing industry. And the resurrection of a way of life that has seemingly vanished.”

To our west in New York City, the “Billion Oyster Project” is underway, and there’s a link to Suffolk. On little Fishers Island, northeast of Shelter Island and part of Southold Town, what’s now the Fishers Island Oyster Farm was begun in 1981 by Sarah and Steve Malinowski. “We got our start during a time when only a few people were exploring the possibilities of modern aquaculture, and it took a lot of determination, collaboration, and a few serendipitous accidents for us to arrive at where we are now,” Steve explains.

They started growing clams and put out a handbook on clam aquaculture. Then, in “the mid-1980s brown tide … decimated the Peconic Bay scallop industry.” And they began growing scallops “to restock scallops into Peconic Bay. Meanwhile, the hatchery where we were obtaining scallop seed mixed some oyster seed into a delivery. Thus, we began to grow oysters!” 

Soon the Fishers Island oysters were being served in restaurants far and wide. And not only were their oysters being exported west, but their son, Suffolk native Peter Malinowski, co-founded and became executive director of the Billion Oyster Project. It has so far planted 45 million oysters, many of which have been growing in a reef the project built, “the largest reef in New York Harbor history.” Declares the project: “It took less than 100 years for New Yorkers to wipe out the oyster population in New York Harbor. And, the Billion Oyster Project is rebuilding this natural resource and habitat.”