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In Celebration of Seaweed

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Harvesting sugar kelp is akin to picking spinach.

That’s how seaweed farmer Suzie Flores describes her work when her crop of sugar kelp is ready to be picked and delivered to customers.

On board her 24-foot Privateer, with a gaff hook in hand and a good knife at the ready, she pulls the lines suspended a few feet below Fishers Island Sound and carefully cuts blades of kelp about 6 inches from the stipe, or stem, so the yellowish-brown algae rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals will continue to grow.

Flores and her husband, Jay Douglas, own Stonington Kelp Co., and have a lease from the state of Connecticut to farm 10 acres in Fishers Island Sound, not far from Latimer Reef Lighthouse.

Sugar kelp is the only seaweed the state allows to be farmed in the sea for human consumption. It’s a winter crop, started in November with 1-millimeter pieces of seaweed attached to kite string and hung from arrays, a series of suspended lines hung between poles.

“Think of it like laundry,” says Suzie Flores. “It’s just like a laundry line. There’s two poles, a line, and you hang sheets of seaweed over them about 4 feet below the surface.”

The seaweed is in constant motion, Flores said, flowing in all directions in concert with the wind, current and tide.

“There’s a constant energy flowing over the farm and that’s really great for the seaweed,” she said.

There are environmental as well as the health benefits. Seaweed helps to remove carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus from the water, a benefit for marine life, said Flores.

“Seaweed sucks up everything in the water,” she said. “Like soil for plants, it extracts organic and inorganic nitrogen. If there is too much nitrogen in the water, it suffocates all the other fish and wildlife.

“Seaweed allows the ocean to breathe. It’s a wonderful way to fight climate change.”

Her farm is still in its infancy. When Flores and Douglas relocated from New Jersey to Pawcatuck, she began searching for a new career. Formerly employed in market research, her inclination to farm seaweed was helped by the fact that her husband had bought a marina on the Pawcatuck River.

“I always had a fascination with the water and conservation and this, well it naturally fell into that. The fact that I could go out and grow something that is food and put it out in November and harvest it in May, well, that alone is a personal sense of fulfillment.

“Farming something in the ocean is the most humbling thing ever,” she said.

In 2016, Flores connected with GreenWave, a Branford-based nonprofit that trains and supports ocean farmers. When she learned she could grow sugar kelp in Fishers Island Sound, she was hooked and has been at it ever since.

GreenWave helped her to navigate the permitting process, supplied her with her initial seed stock and growing information, and she has been learning on the job ever since, although she said she still has GreenWave on speed dial. There have been weather and other hardships, and then, there was Covid, which shut down restaurants, her primary market.

But she’s still at it and began another season in late November. In early spring she will sell her sugar kelp at the Stonington Farmers Market and to local chefs who have found innovative ways to use it.

Renee Touponce, the executive chef at Oyster Club in Mystic, has used it for oils, dried it for powders, made butter and aioli, and wrapped fish in it overnight to season the protein.

“The kelp itself has natural sugars and salt. I like to say it has an oceanic, umami flavor,” said Touponce. “It’s fresh, earthy, salty, briny -- but not real brusque. I use it all kinds of ways. I make a lot of stocks and sauces and I dry it and preserve it. I blend it into a powder and I make oils. I even use it raw for salad.”

The team at Oyster Club is planning an event for April 2022 featuring five courses, all including seaweed. They will team up with Flores and other area commercial ocean farmers with a goal of focusing on the unique flavor of the seaweed grown at each farm.

Other chefs are also using the seaweed. At Shipwright’s Daughter in Mystic, Flores said the chef has prepared seaweed-wrapped scallops, noodled sugar kelp in a fish dish, and used it for a flan.

At home, Flores blanches and freezes some of what she collects to make kelp cubes that she uses in smoothies. “I combine it with whatever veggies and fruits my kids won’t eat to improve the nutrition profile. It’s like eating fish and getting omega 3 and antioxidants,” she said.

She also pickles the stipes, or stems, of the sugar kelp and serves them with tartar sauce. “It’s the best use for tartar sauce ever,” she said.

Flores is a founding member of the Sugar Kelp Cooperative, organized to help the handful of southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island sugar kelp farmers with post-harvest challenges.

“Kelp farming fights climate change, supports working waterfronts, and offers the community a native and healthy super-food -- but it only works if the farmers are able to sell their crops,” reads a statement on the cooperative’s website.

Flores will farm over the winter, visiting her beds weekly while few other boaters are out on Fishers Island Sound. If everything goes as planned, she will begin to harvest her sugar kelp in late March, finishing up around Memorial Day. She will be out there in early spring with her gaff hook, knife, fish baskets and coolers, collecting her bounty and bringing it to shore for customers.

“There are challenges,” she said. “But we do it because it is good fun, it really is. It is a wonderful way to help the planet, to help cure the ocean of all the crap we have done to it. And it is a new economy that we bring to this area where there is a dwindling working waterfront.”

With each growing season Flores said she gains more expertise and knowledge.

“You learn a lot about what you farm,” she said. “The more you know, the more you can predict. Then you can grow more seaweed.”

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