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SCSU Project Blue photo of kelp underwater

Southern students in a kelp innovation class successfully combined their idealism with real-world applications to take home several awards recently at the 23rd Connecticut Business Conference and Competition administered by the Entrepreneurship Foundation.

While the judges generally listen to in-person presentations at this competition, the coronavirus pandemic changed the format so that students instead developed 60-second video “elevator pitches.” For Southern, this involved novel products made from sugar kelp grown in Long Island Sound, according to Colleen Bielitz, associate vice president for strategic initiatives and outreach.

Bielitz and Patrick Heidkamp, chairman of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences Department, created the kelp innovation class as part of the Project Blue Initiative. Kelp is a large, nutrient-rich, brown seaweed.

“For the majority of students, this class was the first time they were exposed to an innovation perspective to sustainability,” Heidkamp said. “I am incredibly proud of what the students accomplished—especially considering the course had to pivot from an on-the-ground, hands-on learning environment to a fully online course due to COVID-19.”

Heather Cushing placed first in the Blue Economy Pitches category for her proposal of a Shoreline Kelp Festival, a kelp-centric event that would feature music, kelp food and beverages, and a week-long restaurant week that includes a three-course kelp meal experience.

“I was quite surprised and excited to learn I had won, as there were some really great ideas for kelp products,” Cushing said. “Kelp has many benefits, both environmentally and nutritionally. A festival is a way to foster interest and knowledge towards Connecticut’s emerging kelp industry.”

Cushing conceded her festival idea will not happen immediately because of the coronavirus pandemic. But she is hopeful it can happen when things improve.

“The interest is there,” she said. “It’s just a matter of organizing and putting it all together. Late spring would be the ideal season to hold the event as that is when the kelp is harvested.”

Kelly Kingston placed second in the same category for her plan for Kelpie, a vegan, nutrient-rich, kelp-based egg substitute. Larissa Anderson finished third for her pitch of Kelpon, a 100-perent biodegradable tampon made with only organic cotton and kelp.

Meanwhile, the team of graduate student Louie Krak and undergraduates Maeve Rourke and Gia Mentillo won the Mobile App category. They developed an app called “Oceans of data at your fingertips,” which delivers real-time ocean data to seaweed and shellfish ocean farmers in Long Island Sound and beyond.

“The customizable data hub provides water quality parameters vital to crop health and bounty at the touch of a button, eliminating the guesswork and inconvenience of daily self-collection,” Krak said. “I could not be prouder to win alongside the outstanding and indomitable Maeve Rourke and Gia Mentillo.”

“The competition provided invaluable experience for all kelp class participants as a handful of their projects will undergo continued development this summer,” Bielitz said.

A CTNext Grant will provide a total of $75,000 for those projects to help convert the ideas into reality.

 

Southern Connecticut State University’s Blue Economy project in Long Island Sound is gearing up to have a profound green impact.

The Project Blue Hub, created by a team of dedicated researchers and spearheaded by Colleen Bielitz, associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives & Outreach, and Patrick Heidkamp, professor in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences at SCSU, is the initial step towards creating a Blue Economy research, tech transfer and innovation hub in New Haven. By expanding the market for locally grown kelp and developing potential innovations aimed at the processing and marketing of kelp, the project will focus on the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved lives, and ocean ecosystem health.

Rich in biodiversity, kelp can be grown and harvested year round. It doesn’t need chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides, so its production is low impact. Kelp forests are home to a wide array of species, from invertebrates and fish to marine mammals and birds. Perhaps most importantly, kelp helps improve water quality by ‘fixing’ the nitrogen content of the surrounding water, reducing ocean acidification.

The world’s oceans are big business: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports the global ocean economy could double in size by 2030, reaching approximately $3 trillion. Based on information from a Southern Connecticut State University research team, the Long Island Sound Blue Economy is projected to grow by 67% during that same time frame to an estimated $13.3 billion.

Colleen Bielitz and Patrick Heidkamp

“Project Blue is so important is because it will allow for continuous economic growth and the advancement of our local community,” Bielitz said. “Through our hub, we will resolve social problems in a sustainable and efficient way. We will develop new technologies, products and services to meet the needs of our community and beyond while continuously improving our capabilities through better use of our resources and assets, particularly the Long Island Sound.”

By using the emerging Long Island Sound kelp/seaweed industry as a catalyst for subsequent Blue Economy initiatives, Project Blue Hub aims to find alternative channels and develop niche markets for kelp through a concerted effort of research and development, innovation, and tech transfer to incubate local businesses.

These business will play a key role in the expansion of the kelp market, such as designing kelp-based cosmetic products; the creation of animal feed from seaweed; the development of bioplastics from Kelp/Seaweed; the utilization of kelp-based bioyarn and biotextiles; and assessing the potential for kelp use in the pharmaceutical industry. Rich in vitamins and minerals such as vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, iron, and magnesium, expansion opportunities are ripe for kelp-based food products for consumers (for example, Fresh Kelp, Kelp Jerky, Kelp Beer, etc.). Kelp also is high in antioxidants, including carotenoids, flavonoids, and alkaloids, which help to fight against disease-causing free radicals.

Through partnerships with Gateway Community College and CT Next, Southern is prepared to provide up to 300 students with practical research and learning experiences in the burgeoning kelp industry in the next two years, creating an infrastructure for ocean farming innovation.

“Our students will form research innovation teams and create proof-of-concept products and innovations in the Blue Economy,” Bielitz said. “This will eliminate or shorten the learning curve to enter the blue innovation workforce. With our hub specifically designed for Blue Economy ideas to be hatched, we will provide students with the hard and soft skills needed to operate in this space.”

Southern’s Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies and the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences have long served as advocates for and experts in Connecticut’s oceanic health; now, partnering with government agencies, relevant local NGOs and business partners, Southern’s Blue Economy Project is leading the charge to create an infrastructure for ocean farming innovation — the economy of which encompasses renewable off-shore energy development, tourism, fisheries, maritime transport, waste management, climate change, coastal resilience, and more.

“Our work will highlight the close linkages between ocean health, climate change, and the well-being of the state,” Bielitz said. “This goes beyond viewing the ocean economy solely as a mechanism for economic growth. We want to create sustainable models based on the circular economy. Similar to the Green Economy, our Blue Economy hub will focus on being inclusive while acting as good stewards of our earth with a focus on social equity, while also meaningfully reducing environmental threats and ecological scarcities.”

Sean Grace with students

Sean Grace, associate professor of biology, was interviewed recently by WSHU radio about a study he participated in regarding the loss of kelp in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Grace was one of three researchers who conducted the study, which pointed to increasing water temperatures as the primary reason for the declining levels of kelp in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

Kelp is a brown algae found in underwater forests. They have a variety of uses, and serve as important nutrients for fish and other sea life.

Listen to the WSHU interview.

Read the original article about the study by Grace, Colette J. Feehan, and Carla A. Narvaez that appeared in the journal “Scientific Reports.”

A Southern marine biologist is exploring why kelp is rapidly disappearing from Long Island Sound.

In 2008, Sean Grace was helping one of his graduate students with her thesis on kelp growth in Long Island Sound. Back then, finding suitable specimens to study was easy. The region’s kelp beds were abundant and thriving, like a plush and well-maintained lawn carpeting parts of the sound’s rocky coastline.

“The kelp beds were so thick that in some areas you couldn’t put your hand down without putting it on multiple kelps,” recalled Grace, a marine biologist and associate professor of biology at Southern, who has been diving in the sound for two decades.

Today, he doubts he could find enough to adequately conduct the research. “You barely see any kelp out there,” he said.

Kelp is a type of brown algae found in underwater forests.

Grace, who co-directs Southern’s Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies, is working to document that dramatic decline, which scientists and divers have been reporting anecdotally over the last several years. He is one of a worldwide network of marine scientists who make up the Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network, or KEEN, an organization attempting to examine the effects of global climate change on kelp habitats.

Scientists aren’t sure what’s decimating the kelp population in the Sound, but Grace said it is likely rising water temperatures are making the environment too warm for kelp, which prefers colder waters.

Long Island Sound is the southernmost point on the East Coast where kelp beds grow naturally, Grace explained. While kelp beds in waters north of Cape Cod remain healthy and plentiful, once-covered spots in the sound and in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay are now bare, except for “a few algae here and there,” Grace said.

Around the world, other coastal spots on the fringes of where kelp beds usually thrive are seeing similar drops, he said.

“When we think about climate change, the oceans are getting warmer and the warmer water from down south is going to start encroaching into Long Island Sound. That’s really going to change the dynamics of the species that are found here,” Grace said. “From a scientist’s standpoint, it’s a really cool natural experiment to watch. But when you think about the effects of it, it’s going to be colossal.”

The decline of the seaweed forests is a huge loss, said Grace, not only for divers who admire their beauty, but for the rich collection of marine life that gets its food and shelter from the kelp beds. Kelp serves as a natural habitat for everything from fish, crabs and urchins to a multitude of invertebrates. It also keeps the Sound healthy by producing oxygen and collecting pollutants from the water, said Grace, who holds both a master’s and a doctoral degree in biological sciences from the University of Rhode Island.

“The greater diversity you have, the healthier the system,” Grace said. “Without these beautiful three-dimensional structures under water, all of those other species will just disappear.”

While some fisherman have been successful growing kelp in Long Island Sound for use in the food industry, the farmed variety does not offer all of the same environmental benefits, he noted. “They’re having great success and that’s good to hear, but these are literally ropes that are seeded with baby kelp and hanging in the water. It’s not a natural kind of setting,” Grace said.

Grace said his research will look at kelp beds throughout the Sound with known kelp habitats, including Branford’s Thimble Islands and spots off the north coast of Long Island. In addition to comparing existing kelp populations to those documented in previous studies, Grace said he will collect data on water temperature, acidity, dissolved oxygen levels and other conditions to try to pinpoint the cause of the decline.

“We’re looking at a whole lot of causes that might be affecting this, anything from temperature changes to an invasive species coming in and out, although we haven’t seen much evidence for that,” Grace said.

Jarrett Byrnes, assistant professor of biology at UMass Boston, and Aaren Freeman, associate professor of biology at Adelphi University in Long Island, are collaborating on the project.

Grace said Southern’s inclusion in the global endeavor is “a major step forward for the sciences” at the university. With 25 percent of the world’s coastlines covered with kelp forests, the research is expected to have far-reaching implications.

“Having a better understanding of what’s taking place when it comes to temperature or anything else we might find is definitely going to have a worldwide effect,” Grace said. “Understanding these ecosystems is really critical to predicting what might happen to them in the future.”