CHATHAM — Selectmen joined a handful of other town boards Tuesday in endorsing a local entrepreneur's pilot project to grow sugar kelp, a kind of native seaweed that can be eaten, used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, or converted into biofuel.
Jamie Bassett told the board this week about his plans to grow the kelp in two test plots, one just inside the new break in Lighthouse Beach near Outermost Harbor, and the other off Harding's Beach. The species, Saccharina lattisima, will be grown on horizontal longlines suspended about six to 10 feet below the surface of the water. If the tests are successful, Bassett plans to grow the kelp as a commercial venture.
Few conflicts are expected with other mariners, since the kelp's growing season is between late fall and the spring. During those months, sugar kelp leaves – which are greenish brown and resemble lasagna noodles – can grow to over 12 feet in length. After the spring harvest, the plants regenerate in time for harvesting each year. During that time, they absorb nitrogen and other nutrients from the water column and provide a habitat for other species.
Having been harvested for centuries, particularly in Asia, seaweed cultivation provides an important food source that is gaining in popularity in the U.S., given its high nutritional value, Bassett said. The leaves are called sugar kelp because of the presence of mannitol, or sugar alcohol, which gives them a sweet taste. The species is native to New England and could be harvested from nature, but Bassett said cultivating the seaweed is a way to ensure that natural beds remain undisturbed.
The idea has economic potential, Bassett noted. In Maine, one kelp grower reported that his crop was so robust in 2014 that he had to hire 24 people to carry out the harvest in the spring. His yield continued to increase, and he hired an additional 10 harvesters the following year, Bassett said. The work could be a viable alternative for commercial fishermen struggling to obtain groundfish permits, he added. According to state fisheries officials, the market demands for edible seaweeds in North America is estimated at over $35 million and growing.
Other pilot programs for growing kelp are underway off Martha's Vineyard and Manchester-by-the-Sea, Bassett said.
“Chatham has a proud and deeply rooted maritime heritage dating back centuries, and in the past, a young fisherman who wished to start off in the world and support his family here could obtain licensing to fish and work the waters for a number of species with no issues,” Bassett wrote in his presentation to the board. Now, access to many fishing categories has been closed, or permits are costly.
Bassett is not seeking a permit for the operation from the town, since no such permit mechanism is in place, he said.
“We're charting new territory here,” he said.
“This is one of the things we're trying to work through with the state,” Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. While the town will issue mooring permits for the tackle that anchors the growing gear in place, “this is new. We don't have a local permit specifically for this at this point,” he said.
The proposal has already won the unanimous support of the waterways advisory committee, the shellfish advisory committee and the South Coastal Harbor committee.
On a motion by Selectman Seth Taylor, the board unanimously endorsed Bassett's plan, and instructed the town manager to write a letter of support on behalf of the board, to provide to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries or any other state regulatory agency that claims jurisdiction.
“The combination of the great seasonality of the wintertime, when nothing else is going on,” and the fact that the kelp is “a naturally occurring product in our waterways” makes the plan an excellent idea, Taylor said.
“I applaud your enterprising spirit on this,” board member Dean Nicastro said. He asked if it is Bassett's intention to have sole claim to kelp farming in Chatham waters. Bassett replied that he views the resource like shellfish, and said he believes the opportunity should be open to all Chatham residents.