National Seaweed Hub is extension educator’s latest project to spur industry

Anoushka Concepcion holds up a ribbon of wild kelp from Long Island Sound.
Anoushka Conception, aquaculture extension educator for Connecticut Sea Grant, holds up a ribbon of wild kelp from Long Island Sound. Photo: Tessa Getchis / Connecticut Sea Grant.

Aquaculture, the farming of fish, shellfish and aquatic plants, is the fastest growing sector of food production, currently providing more than half of the seafood consumed globally. But with overall consumption of both wild-caught and farmed seafood more than doubling in the last 50 years, according to a 2018 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, questions have arisen about whether demand can be met sustainably in the future. Responding to those concerns in the United States, where the majority of seafood is imported, coastal states, including Connecticut, have been increasing their commitment over the last two decades to expand domestic marine aquaculture production.

Connecticut Sea Grant, a partnership between UConn and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, works to support Connecticut’s aquaculture industry, including a shellfish industry that generates more than $30 million annually. Clam and oysters beds in Long Island Sound are providing residents with fresh seafood options. Anoushka Concepcion, an assistant extension educator with UConn Extension and an aquaculture specialist in Connecticut Sea Grant at UConn’s Avery Point campus, is working to put another sustainable item on local plates: seaweed.

“Most of the work I do with seaweed is applied research and outreach,” says Concepcion. “I respond to stakeholder requests and help them overcome challenges that they face.”

For the last several years, Concepcion has been engaging with Connecticut farmers, processors, chefs and regulatory agencies to advance the creation of a local market for seaweed. Seaweed is already a popular crop around the world, particularly in Asia, and interest in the United States is building. The 2018 FAO report found the global commercial seaweed market is currently a $6 billion industry and projected to continue growing. About 85 percent of the seaweed harvested is used for human consumption, as an additive in processed foods and as an ingredient in sushi, soups, salads and other freshly prepared dishes. Most seaweed available in the state is imported and found only at specialty markets.

“Asia has been cultivating seaweed for decades,” says Concepcion. “The biggest challenge here is that there’s no established market, but there is a lot of potential.”

Concepcion has been assisting stakeholders, including industry and regulators, by offering guidance on the cultivation of sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima). An edible seaweed native to Long Island Sound, kelp is a nutritious sea vegetable, high in vitamins B and K, fiber, calcium, iron and other minerals. It also has uses in many commercial products, such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, fertilizers, animal feed and as a biofuel.

Along with other species, kelp also boasts numerous environmental benefits. It helps remediate pollution from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater and agricultural runoff by absorbing excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. It can also reduce ocean acidification and produce oxygen, improving water quality and ensuring a healthy coastal ecosystem for shellfish and other marine life.

“Connecticut has long been a leader in seaweed research,” says Concepcion. “UConn’s Dr. Charles Yarish first received development funds from Connecticut Sea Grant to study our native seaweeds with the purpose of one day cultivating them. One of the first seaweed farms in the United States was established in Connecticut.”

Aquaculture farmer J.P. Vellotti harvests kelp grown in beds in Groton in 2018.
Aquaculture farmer J.P. Vellotti harvests kelp grown in beds in Groton in 2018. Photo: Judy Benson / Connecticut Sea Grant.

The trailblazing role that Connecticut has played in the study and growth of seaweed is set to continue with the establishment of a National Seaweed Hub in Groton, a project headed by Concepcion. She received a $1.1 million grant from the National Sea Grant Program to nurture the growth of a domestic seaweed industry in the United States by helping states reveal and remove barriers and identify opportunities. The project will create a repository of science-based information and descriptions about outreach efforts related to seaweed aquaculture.

By collecting and centralizing these resources, the Seaweed Hub will foster the exchange of practical resources to help stakeholders make more informed decisions. It will also enable Sea Grant programs around the country, along with local, state and federal agencies, to guide planning and outreach efforts. The project brings together nearly two dozen partners, including other Sea Grant Programs, the National Sea Grant Law Center and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture.

“The Seaweed Hub will provide a mechanism where Connecticut stakeholders can learn from other states how to address challenges and find opportunities in the areas of product development, processing and market outlets for seaweed,” says Concepcion. “We are also leading the way in food safety of domestically produced seaweeds.”

There is no existing framework of regulations at the federal level regarding the handling, processing and storage of seaweed or food safety guidelines. Concepcion says overcoming this hurdle would allow for expanded cultivation and investment in the seaweed industry. She has been developing protocols compliant with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point management system and the Food Safety Modernization Act Preventative Control for Human Food rule. Concepcion and the Bureau of Aquaculture are partnering with the National Sea Grant Law Center in a new initiative to craft a model law, regulation or guidance document for the sale of seaweed in its whole form as food.

“The FDA hasn’t made a decision on seaweed safety protocol and it depends if they choose to consider it as a produce product rather than a seafood product,” says Concepcion. “We want to be proactive and develop practices that adhere to both standards. It’s responding to a concern from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to ensure the food safety of seaweed and from producers, who need authorization from the department to sell their products.”

Jude Mascarenhas, director of operations at the Sheraton Hartford South in Rocky Hill, tries some rice pilaf with kelp and other dishes with chefs who gathered in the hotel kitchen last December to learn about kelp from chef Jeff Trombetta, professor of culinary arts at Norwalk Community College.
Jude Mascarenhas, director of operations at the Sheraton Hartford South in Rocky Hill, tries some rice pilaf with kelp and other dishes with chefs who gathered in the hotel kitchen last December to learn about kelp from chef Jeff Trombetta, professor of culinary arts at Norwalk Community College. Photo: Judy Benson / Connecticut Sea Grant.

While addressing product safety is critical, another important challenge is getting seaweed into more kitchens, particularly of those who cook professionally and can help create popular demand. Concepcion has been working closely with the Connecticut Chef’s Association about opportunities to incorporate sugar kelp into meals at restaurants and in catering fare. They have found numerous ways to include seaweed in dishes such as baked fish, rice pilaf and manicotti as well as a variety of soups, stews and salads.

Connecticut food processors are also exploring creating edible products for consumers. Concepcion says there has been interest in producing chips and pasta noodles using kelp. Her efforts to organize workshops and events that bring stakeholders together has proven to be a useful step in identifying and overcoming the difficulties facing the fledgling seaweed aquaculture industry.

“Chefs wanted to gain a better understanding of what seaweed is like to work with,” says Concepcion. “By having the farmers and regulators explain what the production cycle is to chefs, the volume they’re producing, the time of year it’s available and how the permitting process works, everyone can talk about challenges and opportunities. This creates a network.”

She continues, “I like working at Sea Grant. I know what I’m doing with seaweed is contributing to something positive and addressing long-term needs.”

By Jason M. Sheldon