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Study of sugar kelp cultivation in Peconic Bay proposed

Sugar kelp -- a seaweed used as a sweet culinary treat from Asia to Scotland -- may soon join clams, scallops and oysters as a potential aquaculture crop cultivated from Peconic Bay.

Cornell Cooperative Extension has proposed an $80,750 study to determine the potential for farming kelp and marketing it to high-end restaurants.

Officials said kelp also could help clean up the federally protected estuary.

The laboratory for the yearlong study would be five sites located in underwater acreage in the Peconic Estuary that the county can lease to private operators.

"We are intrigued by the potential and looking to understand what the possibilities could be," said Sarah Lansdale, county planning director.

The county's water quality committee last week backed the project, and a resolution to fund a study will be filed with the Suffolk County Legislature next week.

Before the project can go forward, however, Cornell will need permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for permission to deploy the equipment to grow samples at the test sites.

One of the world's most widely cultivated seaweeds, sugar kelp can grow several meters long and has a sweet taste. It is eaten in seaweed salads, sushi and soup, and used as a thickener or stabilizer in foods such as pudding and ice cream.

"We want to make kelp the kale of the sea," said Karen Rivara, the first Long Island Farm Bureau president whose farming is devoted to cultivating shellfish in Peconic Bay. "If we make it attractive to the chefs in the city, we will have all the market in the world."

The proposed study owes much to research at the University of Connecticut, where Dr. Charles Yarish since 2010 has used seaweed to absorb polluting nitrates from both the East River and Long Island Sound.

Dubbed "Captain Seaweed," Yarish also has developed techniques to create "seed banks" that can release hundreds of thousands reproductive spores, which can be replanted on strings from which kelp grows and harvested using grappling hooks.

Yarish, who is working with Suffolk on its project, has estimated that local seaweed farms could produce a crop worth more than $47 million a year.

Cornell's proposed study would start in late November, using Yarish's seed strings, and end in May. Then kelp will be removed, dried and tested to determine how much grows at each site and the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon it extracts from the waters.

County officials say the project will limited to colder months and will operateonly from December to May to avoid problems with local boating. "The beauty of this species is that it grows in the winter months and can be pulled out by the time people put their boats in the water," said Chris Pickerell, director of the extension's marine program.

Research done by the University of Connecticut in the Long Island Sound indicates kelp has the potential for removing 22 pounds of nitrogen in every 2.47 acres during a six month growing period. Other research shows it could remove 10 tons of carbon from every 2.47 acres cultivated annually.

Before commercial cultivation, however, revised state legislation will be needed because under current state law, leases for Peconic Bay bottom only allow shellfish cultivation.

Currently, Suffolk County has 52 leases covering 745 acres of Peconic Bay bottom.

Pickerell estimated it may take four years before commercial kelp cultivation could begin.

Experts say the Cornell proposal also includes a marketing study with experts from agriculture, culinary and cosmetics industries to assess the potential market for sugar kelp, and how best to promote it with high-end restaurants and for use as biofuel and animals feedstock.

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