Fisherman Farmer Plants Seeds for Kelp Business

David Blaney with some Irish moss left out to dry. (Judee Burr/ecoRI News photos)

David Blaney with some Irish moss left out to dry. (Judee Burr/ecoRI News photos)

By JUDEE BURR/ecoRI News contributor

POINT JUDITH, R.I. — David Blaney is making the switch from fisherman to farmer, and he’s banking on bringing an old New England sea vegetable back into favor: kelp.

Using kelp is an old tradition along the New England coast, and still a current one around the world. Seaweeds are commonplace in Asian recipes, and Blaney is hoping to reinvigorate a local taste for it. He will soon begin cultivating Rhode Island’s first exclusive sugar kelp farm, the Point Judith Kelp Co., which was approved in May by the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

“When I was a kid, people still used seaweed,” Blaney recalled. “I remember the farmers used to go to Scarborough Beach in certain times of the year and load up their wagons and collect seaweed. I’ve done carpentry around the coast here and found houses that had been insulated with seaweed.”

The smell of the air is rich and salty in the fishing villages of Galilee and Jerusalem, where many Rhode Island families continue to make a living from the sea. Blaney’s family has always been one of them. The Blaneys are descended from a long line of fishermen and farmers, leading directly back to Roger Williams on Blaney’s father’s side. His mother’s family immigrated to the colony of Rhode Island in 1660, meaning Blaney’s ancestors have been living and working along the Rhode Island coast for more than 300 years.

“I just liked it, I liked being on the water,” said Blaney, recalling why he entered the fishing industry. “More than actual fishing, I liked being on the water and having boats ... it was our family thing.”

Blaney grew up around other fishing families on Great Island, a stone’s throw from Galilee. He worked as a commercial fisherman for 40 years, catching “all different kinds” of fish in places as far-reaching as the Bering Sea. He’s since transitioned to work as a safety consultant and marine surveyor. He has inspected most of the commercial vessels docked on Galilee’s shores. His siblings include fishermen and a farmer, and one of his brothers manages the Snug Harbor Marina. The Blaney family and other Point Judith fishermen learned to make ends meet while weathering the successes and strife of the industry.

“Fishing is very cyclical; it’s always boom and bust it seems to me,” Blaney said. “Do really well, people would buy new boats ... then it’d crash, and people would get out of it and go broke. Lobstering has always been that way.”

A kelp industry could bring another source of revenue to Rhode Island’s coast. Blaney’s farm will be 2.75 acres and far enough from coastal runoff to make his kelp organic. It’s something of a family affair — his sister is closely involved, and his nephew has been testing the farmer’s kelp-based plant food and taking notes on its effectiveness.

Winter is growing season. Blaney is ready to get growing.

David Blaney in a boat he’ll use to support his kelp operation, in the marina managed by his brother.

David Blaney in a boat he’ll use to support his kelp operation, in the marina managed by his brother.

Seaweed farming
There’s a lot wrapped up in the promise of kelp.

Those who want to use healthy, local ingredients can turn to fresh kelp, and it’s worth trying, even if you tend to avoid the dry varieties found more commonly in stores. (Fresh seaweed has a much milder, clean and salty taste than the dried versions.)

Scientists extol kelp’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and nitrogen — two pesky environmental pollutants that we’ve had a hard time figuring out how to manage. As a new farmer, Blaney is also thrilled that this crop needs no fertilizer.

Maybe that’s why Blaney has been getting so much press for his new ocean farming venture — a mention in a story last year in The New Yorker, a number of local articles, and even a hint of a future documentary. With kelp as the poster child, his ocean farm has the potential to produce a health food, a healing cosmetic additive, provide a boost to the local economy, and be used as a nitrogen vacuum and a carbon sink.

Despite all the benefits, getting the farm started was a challenge. It took more than a year to get CRMC approval.

“Because I was the first one, I had to educate the state of Rhode Island about what this was all about,” Blaney said. “DEM (the state Department of Environmental Management) is kind of a culture of ‘no’ ... it was a struggle. I almost threw in the towel at one point I got so discouraged.”

But he persisted, with significant help from a Connecticut-based nonprofit called GreenWave.

GreenWave trains groups of 10 to 15 selected applicants on the science and logistics of ocean farming at its ocean farm in Connecticut. The organization provides new farmers, such as Blaney, with critical tools: assistance through complex permitting processes, healthy seeds, marketing support, and a purchasing guarantee for 80 percent of the seaweed a farm grows for the first five years.

This base of support was vital to Blaney, because getting his farm approved has so far cost him more than he’s made. He relies on an income from his work conducting marine surveys and doing fishing safety consultations.

“I don’t expect in my lifetime I’ll see much return on it,” Blaney said of kelp farming.

But he believes in seaweed. He extols its healing powers, environmental benefits and taste. He’s working on developing a series of kelp-based cosmetics, such as soap, and a cookbook of seaweed recipes. He’s applying for a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service to help him sell kelp at every farmers market in the state. He’s ready to take on the role of educator and ocean farmer, to connect people to healthier food and the state’s fishing history.

“There’s a huge fishing heritage here,” Blaney said. Kelp can help sustain it, he added.

Irish moss is a warm-water seaweed.

Irish moss is a warm-water seaweed.

Coastal entrepreneur
This isn’t the first time Blaney has picked up and tried something new. He went back to college at age 50, to study ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. He worked in a seaweed laboratory and was there exposed to some of the information that led him to kelp.

“The idea of the crusty, old, sea captain is a fallacy — you get to a point that you don’t want to do it anymore,” Blaney said. “It’s extremely physically demanding and uncertain outcome.”

He’s confident he can learn the ropes of seaweed farming.

“The whole operation is very similar to what we do with lobstering — same type of equipment, same type of boats, close to home — so, I said, ‘I know how to do this,’” Blaney said. “And, as far as the cultivating part, well, I can learn how to do that.”

In some ways, his business ethic and resilience is something Blaney learned growing up in an industry accustomed to adaptation. He has watched as regulations have reshaped the fishing industry, as small businesses have fought to compete with large international operations.

“When aquaculture first started coming around we were all like, ‘Oh god, no,’” Blaney recalled. “But, then I started watching over the years, well, people are working on this and they’re getting permits and it’s not gonna stop. So, that was when I said, ‘Well ... I’m gonna do this too, because I’m a local and I’m not going to sit around at the coffee shop and complain about the New Yorkers getting’ the aquaculture permits.

“Coastal types are entrepreneurs. You always have to seize the advantage, look for opportunities.”

Blaney can also see that fisherman here need something else to turn to, in an age of warming waters and changing marine species. He isn’t optimistic that the state will provide the support Point Judith’s fishing industry needs to survive.

So, he is taking matters into his own hands. Seaweed farming can be a revitalizing business opportunity, according to Blaney. As a cold-water crop, kelp has an offseason appeal to Rhode Island’s oyster industry. Local oyster businesses, such as Walrus and Carpenter Oysters, have already begun to grow kelp in the offseason.

Blaney can grow kelp in the winter and then collect warm-water seaweeds such as Irish moss and sea lettuce in the summer. He’s hoping to foster a kelp farming cooperative with a seaweed seed line he received from GreenWave. With this seed line, Blaney can give fisherman access to a good starter crop and help them cultivate kelp farms of their own. There are about six others interested right now, he said.

CRMC is already seeing more applicants for ocean farming permits. Dave Beutel, the agency’s aquaculture coordinator, said there has been significant interest from the Ocean State’s shellfish community. Diversifying is key to keeping the ocean economy healthy, he said. Kelp may have an effective role to play.

Diversifying is critical because the oceans and the industry will continue to change. In the long term, cold-loving kelp may give way to seaweeds that grow in warmer waters.

“If the water gets too warm, it’s not gonna grow for me,” Blaney said of kelp. “I’m a scientist, I follow all this. All the reports I’m reading, say the water is getting warmer much quicker than they thought.”

Editor’s note: You can find some of Blaney’s seaweed recipes here, and he will be serving seaweed salad at an Oct. 22 Community Seafood Dinner sponsored by Eating with the Ecosystem.