A West Sayville oyster hatchery is hinging its hopes on kelp to clean up the Great South Bay and eyeing the plant as a way to boost revenue streams.
The family behind Hart Lobsters is used to persevering in the face of challenge. The company, started in 1988 by Billy Hart, initially sold wholesale lobsters. But that business model was crushed in 1999 when lobsters across Long Island died out en masse from disease, Hart said. To keep his family’s business afloat, he pivoted to oysters and launched his oyster hatchery soon after.
Now his daughter, Lizzie Savage, is continuing the family tradition of spearheading new aquaculture opportunities when facing shortfalls. For the second year, she’s growing kelp with help from the Moore Family Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support to advance kelp growing on Long Island.
Research has shown that kelp benefits ocean waters by removing nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Sugar kelp is a low-maintenance marine plant that grows about a centimeter per day. The nutritious plant has a variety of uses, including as a sweetener, in fertilizer and as food.
It was an easy yes for the family to the nonprofit, and Hart Lobsters just finished its second year growing kelp seed strings, which are deployed in the bay outside of Hart Lobsters to observe its growth before harvesting.
The kelp growth is mostly in its experimental phase, but this was Savage’s first year growing kelp for both research and profit.
While she was drawn to growing kelp to support her family’s business, Savage said she also feels a personal responsibility to help protect Long Island’s environment.
"Once we lose the water, we lose everything," she said. "I do take it very personally. … Everything points back to the bay water."
Savage has introduced kelp to her family’s business and said Hart Lobsters has received a commercial nursery license to grow sugar kelp.
She said she amended her shellfish permit in September with the Department of Environmental Conservation to add sugar kelp.
A law allowing kelp cultivation in Gardiners and Peconic bays was signed into law this year, but commercial growing remains largely untouched in the state. For kelp to benefit the environment, it must be harvested, otherwise it disintegrates in the ocean and rereleases the nitrogen and carbon it absorbed, Savage said.
"We see our role as kind of being a catalyst for the kelp industry in New York," said Justin Moore of the Moore Foundation, which works with a handful of farmers to study kelp-growing conditions and hopes to establish a network as commercial kelp growing becomes more prominent in New York.
Savage said Hart Lobsters, which kept its name despite no longer being in the lobster business, saw a drastic dip in its oyster hatchery during its most recent season. Typically, the business will grow up to 3 million seed oysters per year and aim for 5 million in a good year, but the most recent season only produced 800,000 — less than 20% of their goal, Savage said. That dramatic decrease could prove to be a death knell for the business if those numbers don’t improve, she said.
Savage’s hope is that the kelp, which can be grown in the oyster offseason, will improve the water’s health due to its ability to remove nitrogen from the water and will offer her family’s business a second revenue stream.
"We’re on an island, so anything we put into the ground, or into the water, it’s going into the water," she said. "There’s nothing pulling it out. And we’re bringing more and more people onto the Island, just the overdevelopment happening everywhere. These nitrogen-reducing systems aren’t keeping up."
KELP'S HELPING HAND
The Moore Family Charitable Foundation, founded by Wendy and Justin Moore, established Lazy Point Farms to help farmers grow and cultivate sugar kelp in an effort to combat climate change. Fertilizers and cesspools push nitrogen into the Great South Bay. The Moore Foundation helps hatcheries obtain the equipment they need for sugar kelp cultivation.