Kelp farm idea explored for GSP

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 8:15am
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Obtaining a lease for aquaculture is a many-layered process that starts with the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council. The CRMC’s aquaculture coordinator Dave Beutel recently visited Block Island to conduct a “preliminary determination meeting” on Catherine Puckett’s proposed sugar kelp farm in the Great Salt Pond.

Commercially, sugar kelp is used for food for both human and animal consumption, as a food additive, mainly for thickening purposes, and for fertilizer.

Beutel told those gathered at Town Hall that the preliminary application determination meeting is always held in the town where the lease will be held, and that the “idea was to make a full application better. Sometimes the recommendation from me is: don’t even think about it.”

Once Puckett receives Beutel’s comments and recommendations, she can then make her full application, which will then go out for a 30-day public notice period and be reviewed by several agencies including the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the R.I. Marine Fisheries Council’s Shellfish Advisory Panel. If any of those agencies have objections, the application will need to be reviewed by the CRMC, as opposed to receiving a “purely administrative approval,” said Beutel.

Puckett is seeking to utilize approximately three acres in the pond to grow sugar kelp for commercial purposes between the months of November and April of each year. Sugar kelp needs cold weather to grow, and the idea is that the kelp, grown from spores embedded in the twists of ropes, is “planted” in November, and then harvested in April. The ropes extend down from the surface of the water to the bottom. After harvesting, all of the equipment comes out of the water.

Beutel said that sugar kelp “is a relatively new crop in Rhode Island” with nine people trying it out last year. He said that of those nine, two were very successful, two were moderately successful, and the others “not at all successful.”

It was perhaps to this point that Beutel questioned Puckett on who she was working with for training, guidance, and as a source for the seed, as well as questions about the equipment she would be utilizing, and her plans for marketing the final product.

When Beutel asked those present for their comments on the application, Harbormaster Steve Land broached the subject that is on some people’s minds – that of whether the kelp could become invasive. He said his first reaction to the idea was concern about putting “another biological into the pond,” but performing some research had quelled his fears. “I feel lucky that someone like Catherine is doing this. I feel pretty good about this.”

Beutel said that sugar kelp is native to Rhode Island and indicated that if it were problematic, it would already be so. 

Chris Warfel, owner of Sun Farm Oysters said that there was some sugar kelp in the pond near Beane Point.

Land said that he had reviewed several possible locations with Puckett, and determined that the best place would be along the border of the area where boats are allowed to anchor and the conservation/recreation area to the north. As far as interference from the boaters, and the possibility that they could get tangled in the equipment, Land said that in the months of operation, only “professional” boaters would be in the area. “The weekend warriors do not use the pond in winter.”

As for Puckett herself, Land said: “Her sailing ability and seamanship skills are beyond reproach.”

Skills are one thing, but the boat you use is another. “I need to know it’s going to be safe,” said Beutel. 

Puckett said she was looking for a new boat to use. 

“You’re only as good as your equipment,” said Land.

“I like shopping for boats,” said Puckett. 

Beutel also had questions about the types of anchors that would be used to hold the ropes, noting that 200-pound anchors would not be sufficient.

Puckett said that Ken Lacoste of Block Island Marine would help with the anchors and their installation. “Ken wants me to use 400 pound railroad wheels.”

Land said that they would be actual, stainless steel railroad wheels, cut in half. “If Ken can get that, that is perfect with me.”

“I’m happy with that,” said Beutel of the anchors.

Puckett had at first proposed doing a two-year viability study, but has abandoned that plan, although there will still be a monitoring program in place, developed in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy’s Great Salt Pond scientist Diandra Verbeyst. She is also still starting small, with just four “strings” of rope for the first two years, “to see if it works.”

Beutel said he wouldn’t recommend making an application for a viability study as it was a “lot of administrative work for very little bang.” He said the lease being considered would be a 15-year lease. “If it doesn’t work, you’ll relinquish the lease.”

“I’m here to be supportive,” said Kim Gaffett, also of The Nature Conservancy, “and I think going to full application is great.”

“I’ll just say, I’ve heard nothing negative about this from the other [shellfish] farmers,” said Warfel.