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Joining Efforts to Build a More Sustainable State

There is no time like the present to ditch that side of fries for a side of kelp.

The nutrient dense seaweed is packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and thanks to recent highly successful events like New England Kelp Harvest Week, it’s never been easier for cooks and non-cooks alike to learn how to incorporate Connecticut’s harvested kelp into seaweed-inspired culinary creations.

The state’s sugar kelp industry may be nascent, but Louie Krak, MS ’21, says the possibilities are endless – and he knows his kelp. Krak wrote his entire master’s thesis on seaweed (he earned his degree in environmental studies from Southern Connecticut) and worked as a Blue Economy research assistant for Southern’s Project Blue, the initial step towards creating a Blue Economy research, tech transfer, and innovation hub in New Haven. Krak was also a graduate assistant for Patrick Heidkamp, chair of the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences.

Outside of his work at Southern, Krak also is the Chief Operating Officer for the Long Island Sound Ocean Cluster, or LISOC, a membership-based, venture-building Blue Economy innovation hub in Long Island Sound and beyond.

“What sparked my interest in kelp was I attended the 2020 National Seaweed Symposium in Providence [R.I.] It united seaweed stakeholders,” Krak says. “I was hooked. There are a lot of environmental benefits to harvesting kelp. It’s good for the planet and the body. There’s evidence that kelp helps to increase biodiversity and can contribute to habitat restoration. Kelp’s also a versatile ingredient and limited only to the size of your imagination. You can use kelp in animal feed, bioplastics, household products (even toothpaste), industrial thickeners, commercial, and industrial products. Seaweed is pretty ubiquitous.”

It is so ubiquitous, there are rumors kelp is the new kale.

The hurdle to overcome, he says, is that kelp is largely not on folks’ radars. If you ask your average Nutmegger what they’re serving for dinner, you’re unlikely to hear “kelp.”

To help garner interest, Krak and the LISOC worked with the Sugar Kelp Cooperative (founded by kelp farmers Jonathan McGee, ’19, New England Sea Farms; and Suzanne Flores, Stonington Kelp Co.) to cohost in April 2021 the first-ever New England Kelp Harvest Restaurant Week, “to support local farms, support local restaurants, and fight climate change all in one meal.” Southern’s Project Blue also helped support the event, which featured more than 40 restaurants, breweries, and cafes from Greenwich, Conn., to Westerly, R.I.

Dishes ranged from kelp dashi with asparagus, trout roe, melon vinegar, and kelp oil to oysters with kelp mignonette. There were scallops with smoked kelp, a shrimp meatball kelp “Italian Wedding” soup, and a soft shell crab/sugar kelp salad sandwich. For those who wanted a more spirited kelp, there was even a Furikake Bloody Mary. Table tents alongside the dishes helped with what Krak calls “awareness points.”

“It was no kelp experience needed,” Krak says. “That was part of the fun of the event — helping to expose chefs to kelp. For the most part the chefs dove right in. It was such a success [some restaurants] still have their kelp items on the menu.”

Krak says the event was so popular, he’s hoping to turn it into a full-blown annual festival modeled after Milford Oyster Fest.

The opportunities are ample, but because the kelp market is so new, there is a learning curve. To date there are only a handful of kelp farmers in operation, although the Connecticut Department of Agriculture reports there are kelp farms, or proposals for farms, in Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Fairfield, Milford, Branford, Groton, and Stonington. And while kelp farming can bring in income, McGee advises those who are interested not to quit their day jobs – at least not just yet.

For one, establishing a farm can be a lengthy process, one that involves getting approval from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Department of Consumer Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and local municipalities. In Guilford, where McGee has his farm, he also had to get approval from the first selectman, the yacht club, the shellfish commission, and even homeowners with waterfront property.

“It’s really important that everyone be a proponent of it,” McGee says. “Connecticut is one of the first states to put all these practices in play. In Maine you can harvest wild seaweed. In Connecticut the only way you can introduce kelp into the human food supply chain is to grow it on long line, so it’s all cultivated.”

As the market grows, processing and storing kelp also raises obstacles because it degrades so quickly. McGee and Flores had to hand deliver their kelp in coolers to restaurants for New England Kelp Harvest Restaurant Week, and you won’t find kelp in grocery stores just yet.

When you’re struck with your kelp moment though, like Krak and McGee, all concerns seem to fall away.

“My moment happened in 2018 when I was watching 60 Minutes,” says McGee. “They aired a report on kelp farming and I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I could do this.’ I was in grad school at Southern for my MBA, and I introduced the idea to our cohort and we ended up having some collaborative group projects about kelp, and then I ended up creating a business plan for kelp. The same year I graduated I started my kelp farm.”

Covid set him back initially, but by October 2020 he decided to increase the scale of his farm because there was so much activity.

“Without question the market is growing and will continue to grow,” McGee says. “If we work together we can get the product out there with a broader reach. New England Kelp Harvest Restaurant Week was an idea to celebrate the harvest of this local, wonderful food source.”

Speaking of food again, Krak adds that Loliware, a company in Connecticut, is making seaweed-based material to replace single-use plastics, which means in the near future you may be able to order your beef bulgogi sugar kelp kimchee cellophane rolls in a – you guessed it – seaweed-based take-out container that starts to fully degrade once composted.

Take that, kale.

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