Beverly Gwathney and Danielle Hopson Begun of Shinnecock Kelp Farm display a sugar kelp...

Beverly Gwathney and Danielle Hopson Begun of Shinnecock Kelp Farm display a sugar kelp line. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Once water gets in your waders this time of year, you're on the clock at Shinnecock Kelp Farm. You have 15 minutes left to comfortably wrap up what you're doing and get out of the chilly bay. 

That's according to Danielle Hopson Begun, 53, whose savvy is borne of experience as one of a handful of sugar kelp farmers who work Shinnecock Bay — a collective she describes as "rogue women fighting climate change."

The nonprofit is the first Indigenous-owned and operated kelp farm on the East Coast and has flourished since its origins in 2020. The farm has expanded operations from 800 feet of kelp lines to 6,200 feet — with the aim to clean the water and create a sustainable business. 

While growing, the kelp improves bay water quality. After harvesting, the nonprofit sells the kelp as a soil amendment for local gardens.

Grants have helped support Shinnecock Kelp Farm's growth, including a recent $75,000 contribution from the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, that does work around the globe. 

“For the Nature Conservancy to not only be interested in our project, but to actually put their money where their mouth is and actually contribute means a lot to us,” said Hopson Begun.

The nonprofit has partnerships with the Sisters of St. Joseph religious community in Brentwood and GreenWave, a nonprofit focused on regenerative ocean farming. 

Hopson Begun said the new funding has helped with equipment and staff, enabling the farm to grow more kelp.

Sugar kelp has been hailed for its environmental benefits as a crop that sequesters carbon and produces oxygen — mitigating ocean acidification — while also absorbing nitrogen. The latter is a major pollutant of Long Island waterways that feeds algal blooms that can choke out other marine life.

The kelp farm's short tenure hasn’t been without controversy.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said in a statement that it hasn’t filed required permits. The DEC said the law requires prospective kelp growers to get off-bottom culture permits from the agency, a process that includes verifying lawful access to underwater lands.

The kelp farmers contend their sovereign nation has legal rights to use waters around the reservation for aquaculture.

Attorney Tela Troge, director of the kelp farm collective, pointed to a series of agreements leaders of Shinnecock Indian Nation and colonists signed in the 1600s that she said affirmed the tribe's right to lease seaweed blocks to non-Native people in Shinnecock and Peconic bays.

Known as the "seaweed cases," these deeds were among evidence the nation used to help gain federal recognition in 2010, Troge said.

Advocates of the farm have stressed how its operation has improved the bay.

Officials from the Nature Conservancy noted that “scallops, clams, seahorses and other species that have experienced precipitous declines in Shinnecock Bay were seen exploring and sheltering in their kelp lines.”

Toby Sheppard Bloch, GreenWave's infrastructure director, said his organization has been impressed with the kelp farmers' effort to collaborate with bay stakeholders "to draw attention to the potential of nature-based solutions."

The “hands-on teaching of new farmers” is part of the farm’s goal, according to Hopson Begun. Shinnecock Kelp Farm personnel have spoken at kelp farming conferences in Alaska, Washington state and Maine, as well as on global Zoom calls with the Nature Conservancy.

“They have inspired and helped teach thousands of people,” said Kevin Munroe, the Nature Conservancy's Long Island preserve director.  

Sister Kerry Handal, who works with the farmers, described the collective's growth as being “like night and day."

The way Hopson Begun sees it, the collective is considering the welfare of the entire community and generations to come.

“At Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, every day is Earth Day," she said.

KELP FARM FACTS

  • The Shinnecock Kelp Farm is the East Coast's first Indigenous-owned and operated kelp farm 
  • Sugar kelp has been hailed for its ability to improve water quality
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