Kelp farming in GSP eyed for growth

Thu, 03/28/2019 - 5:30pm

As Block Island’s first sugar-kelp farm wraps up its first season, both the Harbors Committee and the Shellfish Commission have weighed in on the establishment of another kelp farm. This time the applicant is lobsterman Jon Grant.

Grant put in his aquaculture application to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council in February, and among the many steps of review is the need for an advisory from the Town Council, informed by advisories from the Harbors Committee and the Shellfish Commission.

At the Harbors Commission meeting on March 21, Vice-Chair Arlene Tunney asked, somewhat rhetorically, “What is sugar kelp?”

Grant explained that there were different varieties, just as there are “different varieties of lettuce.” And he’s been experimenting with using sugar kelp in cooking. “It’s good to eat. I’ve been making pizzas with it instead of spinach.”

Grant’s proposal is for a 4.62-acre site in the Great Salt Pond near the Coast Guard channel. Regarding the location, Harbormaster Steve Land said: “I think it’s the perfect spot.”

Sugar kelp farms operate seasonally from November through April. The set-up is fairly basic, with ropes running from the water’s surface down to moorings on the sea floor. The ropes are seeded with kelp that then grows over the winter and is harvested in April. All the gear is removed from the water until the next season.

“As Harbormaster, I have to be worried about boats coming in the winter,” which he said, consist mainly of Coast Guard and research vessels.

The farm would be marked with buoys, and Grant said he could utilize “radar reflective high flyers” for the buoys closest to the channel.

“Where would you sell this kelp?” asked Harbors Committee member Carl Kaufmann.

Grant said that there was a buyer in Connecticut who had moved to Maine. “He’s going to send a truck to Point Judith” to pick up the kelp, he said.

“Is this the same type of kelp that Catherine [Puckett] does?” asked Kaufmann.

Puckett is in her first year as a sugar kelp farmer and about to have her first harvest in the Great Salt Pond.

“This is in its infancy here, but in other places in the world, it’s big business,” said Grant. When asked if he would harvest all of his product at once, Grant said that if he could find a farmers’ market or other small-scale buyer, he would, but “realistically it’s easiest to harvest all of it in a couple of days.” He added that the activity would complement his lobstering in the summer. “It works into my timeframe.”

“Steve, do you have any issues?” asked committee member Pat Evans.

Land said he had already “hashed this out with Catherine” and was “more comfortable after getting an education on it.” He said the activity was environmentally sound and didn’t interfere with other uses of the pond. “I’m actually in complete support of this.” Grant said the kelp helps with nitrogen reduction in the water and provides “a safe harbor for little critters too.”

The Harbors Committee voted to send a favorable advisory to the Town Council. Later that day, the Shellfish Commission, in a special meeting, voted to do the same Grant told The Block Island Times.The matter is on the Town Council agenda for Monday, April 1, and the CRMC will hold a public hearing on Thursday, April 4 at 12:15 p.m. at Town Hall.

Pump-out discussion

The Harbors Committee has gotten some feedback from marina operators, and others, on its proposal to charge marinas for pump-out services. Per law, marinas are supposed to provide their own pump-out services, but most do not and the Harbors Department ends up picking up the slack and the cost. They have estimated that 40 percent of the cost of providing the free service comes from boats pumped at private marinas. The matter was considered by the Town Council on February 27, and sent back to the Harbors Committee for more work.

“Reading these letters, they have some good points,” said Tunney.

A letter from Ken and Marlee Lacoste, operators of Harbor Road Yacht Basin stated: “For the record, we would not be supportive nor willing to be charged for something which we do not use.” (Ken Lacoste is New Shoreham’s First Warden.) “To the best of our knowledge, we only have one seasonal tenant that is live-aboard capable with a marine head on board the boat. Furthermore, that boat is not used as a full-time live-aboard.” The letter contrasts this situation to that of the larger marinas that “host hundreds of transient, live-aboard boats over the course of the season (May to October).”

The letter suggests the Harbors Committee “come up with a way of determining the actual gallonage and charge by the gallon.”

Carole Payne of Fort Island Docks responded similarly that the boats docked there are not live-aboard vessels and “14 of the 15 vessels do not have marine toilets.” She also explains that all of the slips are “resident slips” and she doesn’t “take transient customers.” Payne ends her letter by stating: “As a taxpayer I feel the pump-out program is a success as is and our water quality is worth the expense associated with the program.”

The amount in question — $20,000 — is not particularly significant. Land said: “This isn’t going to break the bank.”

The Lacostes’ letter calls the amount “token.”

Still, the Harbors Committee doesn’t feel it should be footing the sewage bills for marinas, just as the town doesn’t foot the bill for sewage from a hotel or other private business. There is also the complication of jeopardizing grant funds from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. Grant terms stipulate that vessels can’t be charged more than five dollars per pump-out if the program has been supported by grants from the DEM. So, the committee has focused on charging the marinas instead of the boat owners.

“Ed [Roberge, Town Manager] and I are still working out the details on this,” said Land. He also said that the Department of Environmental Management is involved in the discussion. “This will not clear them (marinas) from having a system that works.”

Although the Town Council had wanted more information from the Harbors Committee for its April 4 meeting, Land said “I don’t think you have to decide this today.” No decisions were made, but Evans closed out the discussion by saying: “I’m glad people are talking about this.”