Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

Researchers harvested the first batch of sugar kelp grown in the Peconic Estuary on Thursday, a crop that they said could boost the local economy and help improve water quality.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension is leading a pilot program, funded by Suffolk County, to grow kelp in the estuary and determine the feasibility of growing the crop commercially, said Chris Pickerell, a habitat restoration specialist and the extension’s marine program director.

Researchers tested five sites in the estuary, and harvested their most successful line of kelp Thursday, Pickerell said.

The kelp will be measured and analyzed by researchers to determine the best growing conditions and depths in the estuary. The line harvested Thursday grew in Gardiners Bay, in about 15 to 18 feet of water, before researchers moved it to Noyack Bay off Cedar Beach, near the Suffolk County Marine Education Center.

Kelp is a cash crop that can be used as a food source, in pharmaceuticals and as a fertilizer, Pickerell said. Growing kelp also benefits the environment because it removes nitrogen and carbon from bodies of water.

“It’s a win-win in that way,” Pickerell said.

Kelp competes with harmful algal blooms, which also need carbon and nitrogen to grow, said Stephen Schott, a marine botany and habitat restoration specialist with the cooperative. The harmful blooms produce Long Island’s “red tides” and “brown tides,” reduce water quality, disrupt other vegetation, produce toxins and poison shellfish, Schott said.

Connecticut has a small seaweed aquaculture industry, and New York is looking to follow suit, Schott said. “The potential there is really wide open.”

Kelp grows in cold water from November or December to May or June, which could help avoid conflicts with boaters who typically use the estuary during warmer months, Pickerell said. Researchers also are considering how to harvest kelp without disrupting scallop fishing, he said.

New York lacks regulations to manage a seaweed aquaculture industry, but the state and Suffolk County are working on legislation to change that, Pickerell said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Leg. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) watched from a barge as a diver retrieved the kelp from the bay Thursday. Bellone said growing kelp in the Long Island Sound could have a “positive impact on our waterways.”

“At the end of the day if we can establish a commercial industry that is viable, that is helping our local economy, but at the same time helping to improve water quality and achieve our mission of reclaiming our water in Suffolk County, that is an incredible win for everyone in the region,” Bellone said.

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