Cindy West holds up a piece of her sugar kelp earlier in the season.  Photo credit: Celeste Venolia

Cindy West holds up a piece of her sugar kelp earlier in the season. Photo credit: Celeste Venolia

On April 22nd, I woke up nice and early to help Cindy and John West of Cedar Island Oyster farm harvest some of their sugar kelp lines. They had already spent a couple days harvesting, which was an impressive reminder of how much kelp they ended up growing. The harvest was an exhausting, but fun process. My height ended up being helpful as I would be the one to stand under the pulley as we all hoisted the new section of kelp line up onto the boat.

Kelp Biology Lesson

 One of Cedar Island Oysters’ kelp lines underwater earlier in the season. The older tissue on this kelp is light in color. This portion will be cut off in the harvest process.  Photo credit: Celeste Venolia

One of Cedar Island Oysters’ kelp lines underwater earlier in the season. The older tissue on this kelp is light in color. This portion will be cut off in the harvest process. Photo credit: Celeste Venolia

The kelp looked rather stunning hanging from the pulley. The ruffled blades hung together to form a luxurious golden brown curtain. From there we went about the process of cutting off the degraded tips of the kelp blades. Time for a bit of a kelp biology pause in the narrative. Kelps have a base structure called a holdfast that allows them to cling onto rocks in the wild or the lines they are seeded on in aquaculture systems. Connecting the holdfast and the main blade of the kelp is the stipe, a structure reminiscent of a stem. The main region of growth in the blade occurs near the stipe. As kelp grows and ages, the oldest tissue at the tip of the blade begins to be shed off. This older tissue is less desirable for human consumption. Trimmings of these degraded tissue were collected in one set of bags and the remaining blades were collected in another set of bags.

The Fate of the Kelp

Cindy and John sold their kelp to Sea Greens Farms, who turns the blades into kelp noodles. A processor also took the trimmings, but at a much lower rate per pound. I believe the trimmings end up being used as fertilizer on farms. The most physically challenging part of the day was after all the kelp was out of the water. We transported the heavy bags off the boat and into the truck, so they could be transported to refrigeration as quickly as possible.

Talking to Cindy at the end of this harvest, it became clear to me that for the kelp industry to have more staying power in Rhode Island the financial incentives for farmers need to be higher. Oysters are much more profitable for the amount of physical labor involved, given the way the kelp industry is currently structured and the high consumer demand for oysters. I hope that sooner rather than later kelp becomes more profitable for farmers, because it is a nutritious species with impressive yields that make it a good carbon sink in our oceans.

Written by: Celeste Venolia