Harwich Kelp Farmer Provides Insight Into New Industry

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Waterways , Agriculture & Farming

Mark Kelleher prepares for a presentation on his kelp farm at Chase Library. Kelleher is growing kelp in Nantucket Sound about a mile outside the Herring River. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

WEST HARWICH — Mark Kelleher has been drawn to the waters in and around the Herring River for many years. He's worked in fishing and shellfishing, and now has a new venture, a kelp farm a mile offshore, which is taking advantage of the nutrients flowing from the river into Nantucket Sound.

The kelp farm is a first for Harwich. Kelleher admits it is an experiment for him. The part-time teacher, shellfisherman and now farmer made a presentation last Thursday to approximately 30 people at the Chase Library.

He spoke of his involvement with the shellfish nursery operated by Aquacultural Research Corporation that has replaced the former fishhouse at the mouth of the Herring River and the success they have had this past growing season. He said Paul Wittenstein, who operates the nursery, attributed much of the success to the nutrients flowing down the Herring River. The nursery grows quahog, oyster and sea clam seed and sells it to aquaculture farms. Wittenstein, he said, is also helping out with the kelp project.

Kelleher said the shellfish seed and the kelp feed on the nitrogen that flows into the marine environment, reducing pollution that is degrading the marine habitat. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has a particular interest in his effort because they are looking at a larger scale project in deeper ocean waters that will serve both to raise food and reduce nitrogen impacts in the marine environment, he said.

WHOI was one of two suppliers of the spores used to start the kelp. The other supplier was Greenwave, a company out of New Haven, Conn. that is growing kelp in Long Island Sound and with which Kelleher said he is affiliated.

Kelleher said he got interested in kelp farming a couple of years ago. He had been shellfishing in Chatham and learned of Greenwave and saw the growth of the industry in Maine.

Kelp, a seaweed, is nutrient dense and rich in vitamins, he said. It is being sold in fresh sushi markets, for salads, can be used as dried food, frozen and it's even being made into spaghetti. There is a local market with restaurants using it in salads.

Kelp is a general term, Kelleher said. He is growing sugar kelp, which is one of several native varieties allowed to be farmed here.

Questions posed to Kelleher seemed to be directed at how to get started in farming kelp.

Kelleher explained there are several permits required, including from the Army Corps of Engineers, relating to use of marine waters and avoidance of navigation structures. State permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and Division of Marine Fisheries are also necessary. Locally he had to deal with the harbormaster relative to navigational issues and the conservation commission. He also needed approval from the local Native American council. It took him about a year to go through the permitting process.

Attendees wanted to know about the equipment necessary to establish the farm and the associated costs. Kelleher said he needed moorings, explaining he has 600 pounds of anchors holding his 250-foot line in place. Buoys and radar are used to mark the end of the lines and flotation buoys are required to keep the kelp line about seven feet below the surface. The line is kept about 20 feet from the ocean bottom, allowing kelp growth. Including an upgrade to his boat, it cost $10,000 and a lot of sweat equity to get started, he said.

There is little boating conflict because kelp grows over the winter months; it loses nutritional value in warmer waters. He said his equipment went into the water in November and the kelp will be harvested by the end of May.

Kelleher is permitted for one 250-foot line, which is located a mile offshore, southeast of the entrance to Herring River. He noted a permit has been granted for a 40-acre site off Harding's Beach in Chatham. If his harvest is successful, Kelleher said, he would be back looking for permitting for 1,000 feet of line next fall.

He was out to the site on Dec. 27 and the kelp, which grows in long lengths, as much as 10 to 15 feet, had grown about three to four inches. He planned to make another trip out next week and projected it would be five to eight inches by then. This is the period where the kelp absorbs nutrients; in February and into the spring photosynthesis drives growth. He said by the harvest season he hoped the kelp strands would be five to 10 feet long.

There were questions about marketing kelp. Locally he said it can be sold in farmers market and to restaurants, but at this point he is required to sell it to a certified seafood dealer. In the future he hopes to sell it directly to local restaurants. He speculated the price per pound would be $5 to $30. Kelleher said he hoped the industry would get big enough to generate a drying and freezing facility in this area in the future.

There were questions about pathogens, predators and potential impact from red tide. Kelleher said kelp would be harvested before red tide blooms hit in warmer waters. He admitted he did not know the answer to predators and pathogens, and also noted the potential for ice to have an impact on his gear.

Although new here, Kelleher said kelp farming will provide another food source, employment and potentially additional economic benefits here.