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179 Mechanic Street
Stonington, CT, 06379
United States

860-501-6848

Mechanic Street Marina is a veteran owned and operated marina located in Pawcatuck, CT on the Pawcatuck River. Mechanic Street offers 25 slip rentals each season (May-Oct) winter storage,and Kayak/SUP rentals

Stonington Kelp Co

Anchors

James Douglas

Outfitting the kelp farm has always been a large part of the process, but one that would be addressed after all the permitting was complete, and that process took over a year, so we didn't worry too much about the gear.  It was a distant item on our to-do list. Then, without warning (*with plenty of warning from Greenwave which we failed to heed) it was time to get all the gear ready for the farm.

We sat with Kendall and Bren from Greenwave and made a list of needs which naturally split into three components: stuff we must buy, stuff we can make, stuff Greenwave can help with. Our shopping list looked something like this (give or take a few hundred feet and a buoy or two):

IMG_1139.JPG
  • 36 Anchors 
  • 2000 feet 1/2" line
  • 600 feet 1" line (we were provided 650 feet through Greenwave which was a big help)
  • 32 flotation buoys
  • 12 mooring Buoys
  • 6 Navigation buoys
  • Materials for outfitting boat to transport/ drop anchors

 

I am sure that with the right funds, a person could go to a store or two and purchase these items and be done with it, however that is not how Jay and I roll (mostly because we do not have the right funds). The buoys and most of the line needed to be purchased so they would meet regulations. Greenwave had some line they were sharing with all the farmers. The anchors, however, were something that we could build...and build them we did. I thought the process was so interesting and so time consuming that I felt compelled to honor it with a post.

ANCHOR MAKING 101:

Our anchors are disappointingly concrete. I hoped for something more iconic - something that would be tattooed on a forearm or a bicep - but that was not in the cards. What i did appreciate, however, was the DIY-ness of the anchors. We borrowed the design for a form  from Bren. The form makes a standard pyramid anchor - essentially an inverted pyramid resting in a wooden frame. The plan was to fill the form with concrete, allow it to set up, lift the anchor out, rinse, repeat. The form was designed to make concrete anchors that weigh approximately 160 lbs which was necessary for us to meet the permitting requirements. 

Figuring out how to actually make the anchors, fix the links of chain into the anchors so they could be attached to line, and try to reduce the friction was left to Jay and I to noodle on. Jay was the project manager on this one - and there was some trial and error - but I think he landed on a pretty good process for making the 36 anchors being used to hold our farm in place.

STEP 1: Prep

We used 3 forms built from plywood. Jay painted fiberglass on the inside of the forms to keep the concrete from setting to the wooden form. We learned (after a few anchors got stuck) that if we covered the inside of the form in wet newspaper before filling them, the anchors easily slide out of the form after they set.

We purchased process from a stone yard, we purchased long metal chain from a salvage yard, we had a winch, and we borrowed a metal cutting saw.

STEP 2: Mix and Pour

We set the forms up in a row under a ladder. Suspended partially in the form was a chain which would be used to tie the line to. We crisscrossed 4" pieces of rebar to secure the chain in the anchor and give the concrete more metal to grip. We didn't want the chain to break out of the anchor. Here is a picture since this is hard to describe.

 

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Our anchor recipe was two parts process, one part sand, one part water, one part elbow grease. We mixed the anchors in our wheel barrow and shoveled the concrete into forms. Each anchor took 24-48 hours to set. I learned, while waiting for the anchors to harden, that concrete becomes hard through a process called hydration which is a chemical reaction where the major compounds in cement form chemical bonds with water molecules.

STEP 3: Removing the Forms

We used a winch to lift the anchors out of the forms. Once lifted, the form needs a little encouragement (we tapped them with a 2X4) and then the anchors need to rest for a few days. We had to give them time to adjust to their new state. 

If you were to watch the blooper reel, you would see Jay hurting his back from lifting too many anchors solo, you would see me scraping all the skin off my knuckles when an anchor attacked me while I was moving it, you would see Jay cutting lots of metal chain WAY too close to our flammable home and other painful/stupid mistakes. You would also hear lots of four letter words that my toddler is now repeating. 

Who knew that making anchors would be such a large part of establishing an ocean farm?

FAQs of Kelp Farming

James Douglas

Jay and I have had a lot of questions around the kelp farm and thought it would be a valuable exercise to go through them and try and come up with answers that are acceptable for now and as we learn more, we can update them.

Here you go - some frequently asked questions around our kelp farm...

image from New England Seaweed Handbook

image from New England Seaweed Handbook

What is kelp?

Kelp, specifically sugar kelp which is what we are growing, is algae. It's seaweed that you would find washed up on local beaches. The sugar kelp we are growing is a winter crop. We seed in the late fall and we harvest the kelp in the late spring. Kelp grows SUPER fast (between 1 and 4 centimeters a day - an inch is 2.54 cms for us 'mericans) and is used many ways worldwide. 

What on earth possessed you to grow kelp?

Its no secret that both Jay and I love and rely on the ocean for a living. We own a marina, we live directly on a river that leads to the little Narraganset bay, and we put food on the table using money earned through rentals and bait sales which only happen because the waters here are clean and have healthy fisheries. Our home, income, and everyday lives involve our local watershed. Kelp farming is a way to help clean up some of the nitrogen that is being pumped into our rivers and oceans from human activity. Kelp farming has very little impact on the natural ecosystems (the kelp absorbs the nitrogen and provides a nice habitat for little fishies while requiring no fertilizer, no fresh water, only sunshine and ocean). We also are supporting a cool economy and hopefully can offer new jobs one day to farmers that we hire to help us out. It just seems to make sense. It checks all the boxes - involves water, is good for the environment, allows jay to spend lots of time on the boat, is a winter crop so won't conflict with marina demands, can be done locally...i could go on...we apparently have a lot of boxes to check... The FAQ should really be "Why haven't we done this sooner?".

How does the farm work (and do you have to own the ocean)?

Low-rent Post-It Drawing

Low-rent Post-It Drawing

No mom, we didn't buy a part of the ocean. Actually, this is a question we got a lot. We did have to lease an area located in state waters which is designated as a site appropriate for aquaculture (think oysters, mussels and stuff like that). The farm is all underwater. Kelp is a sea vegetable, but a really important difference between sea vegetables and land vegetables is kelp doesn't use its roots to adsorb nutrients from soil like spinach or kale. Because of this, kelp's "roots" (they are really called the holdfast which is pretty straight forward) are just used to attach the kelp to something underwater where the kelp can grow and absorb nutrition from the sun and the passing water.  In nature, kelp can grow from the bottom of the ocean up (sort of like grass), off the side of a rock, or in our case, from a line downwards (sort of like the branches of a weeping willow). The kelp seed comes from a hatchery and is handed over to us in a spool - more specifically a spool of kite string. The actual farm is all underwater (with a few buoys on the water surface to make sure things don't sink to ocean floor). It looks a little like this low-rent post-it drawing featured above. 

 The spooled kelpy-kite string is unrolled around a horizontal line about 5 feet below the surface of the water. Imagine a balloon on a long string tied to a rock -  now imagine another one about 200 feet away.  We tie the kelp seed line to each of those anchored balloons (buoys) and let it sit in the ocean - it can't sink and it wont float away because of the anchors (we hope!). It grows downward allowing us to harvest it easier. We can also check on it without diving in the ocean in the middle of winter. 

Where are you getting the kelp seed?

UConn and the Connecticut Sea Grant have been looking at kelp and ways to germinate and cultivate the plants. They have partnered with Bren at Greenwave (the glorious NGO we are working with) to get the right type of seed to the farmers. Divers go out in the early fall and harvest seed from wild kelp forests that are growing locally.  They collect sorus tissue which has the spores for future generations of kelp and bring it back to UConn. The seed comes to us in spools of "seed-line" and all we need to do is string it out in the ocean and pray it works.

Would Jay and I actually eat it?

OF COURSE we will...so will our cruddy kids and so will everyone who comes to our house. We will also drink it (stand by for more on that). It can be really good for you. 

How do you get it once it grows?

Nothing we are doing here is high tech. The harvesting is fairly simple - you go to the kelp farm, use your hands or a winch from the boat to lift the heavy (hopefully) kelp line from the water and you cut the kelp off with scissors. You then place it in a bin and rush it back to the processing plant. Kelp needs to be processed right away to keep it usable. This is a race against the clock. Once it is at the plant, it is cleaned, blanched, and frozen in under 24 hours. Jay and I will be a part of this process. 

What do you use kelp for? / Who is going to buy our kelp?

Greenwave has helped us navigate the process from seeding to selling. They have worked with for profit organizations such as  Sea Greens to establish market demand for kelp and explore new avenues of application - for instance kelp can be used as fertilizer, as fuel, in cosmetics, and as food for humans and animals. Jay and I are the farmers who sell to value-added businesses like Sea Greens. They take the kelp and turn it into what the market wants. Jay and I, obviously, will retain some of the product to mess around with and to share with you good people. I hope to offer kelp to local restaurants directly as well as bring to CSAs or farmers markets. Why not, right? 

 

Training: Seeding the Kelp Farm and Occasional Rubber Pants

James Douglas

Jay and I walked down the pier in the thimble islands on a cold December morning. Bren Smith from Greenwave (one of the people who has gone above and beyond to support our farm and one of the pioneers of seaweed aquaculture in this region) looked at me and assured me I was under dressed. He handed me a spare set of rubber overalls.  He also handed me a knife and put me to work cutting lines all in the space of 4 minutes. I tried to hide my excitement of being confused for a fisherman and immediately got to work. 

Jay has been on boats his whole life. He can sail. He can fish. He can tie knots. I have none of these skills. I am a vegetarian who grew up with a mother who gets sea sick in a pool and a father who can't swim. Boating was not a part of my childhood and fishing was pointless for me. At that moment, when I was baptized by fire on Bren's small fishing boat, setting out to seed the kelp farm, I started to understand the reality of this farm. I started to process the physicality of seeding and harvesting this crop. We would need to be on boats that were not destined for the beach. We would be working on the boat, WORKING. We would come back in and have a beer on a cold autumn day and wear rubber pants. The fun stuff- the things that would make me sweat - was within my reach.

So, with a pair of men's rubber overalls on, armed with a knife, and tasked with a job to cut lines, we set off. On board we carried a few non-descript buckets containing spools of line that were braided with very precious kelp seed cultivated under the watchful eye of the scientists at U CONN. All kelp which is used in ocean farming must come from an approved source to assure there are no invasive species introduced.

We reached Bren's ocean farm in the Thimble Islands and with the social graces expected of a fisherman, he barked directions at his patchwork "crew" for the day. This particular seeding trip was a little crowded. We had a film crew from NOAA doing a piece on Bren's farm, the boat's captain, Bren, and three farmers including myself. 

Rubber Pants.jpg

My inexperience on boats was obvious however my expertise at "holding things" was quickly realized and I found myself doing the critical work of an end-table for most of our expedition. These tasks did not dampen my spirits.  I was thrilled to be on the water and learn how this all takes place up-close. Our boat pulled alongside buoys which we clipped onto, spliced in a line, and then drove the boat (with line in tow) to another buoy where we repeated the process. Picture a capital "H": we were essentially adding in the horizontal line of that "H". We made a few "H"s then went on to the second half of the seeding process. This part took place in a small skiff. I am told this was a particularly rough day to be out - but the drama of the waves added to the fun. 

The skiff returned to the horizontal long line we had just set up.  We carefully threaded one of the PVC spools onto that line (here is a pic of Bren with one of the spools on instagram). We then would slowly pull the spool along the line so that the kelp seed unwinds around the long line we just set. When the spool runs out, the line is dropped back into the water and we hope that the sun, nutrients in the water, current, turbidity, temperature, and activity all beget kelp over the next few months. 

The things I learned during the seeding process (other than the steps Bren takes to set the lines) was how sensitive the kelp seed is. We had to treat these spools of kelp with such gentle care and needed to rush them into the water to give them the best chance of growing. We wont know how they are going to fare for a few months. We just have to hope we picked a place where the kelp can thrive. 

There is something very comforting about the process. Experiencing this seeding training helped me see how important the site selection is. It made me realize that the outreach piece - the boring stuff done while sitting on my butt and housing large bags of pretzels - has as big of an impact as the actual physical piece. Having the right place to seed comes with research, community engagement and support. These pieces, while not conducive to wearing rubber pants, were still critical to the success of this farm. Lesson learned - rubber pants are only part of the fun. 

 

In 2013, Bren Smith, former industrial fisherman and ocean farmer, starts GreenWave (greenwave.org), an NGO aimed at replicating in open-source a new model of ocean farming that he has put together after years of trial and error. It offers solutions to mitigate our harm with regards to the current food insecurity crisis, and impacts of climate change. In 3-dimentional marine farm model that’s one of the most sustainable ways to feed us, requiring no inputs whatsoever, he grows Kelp (an algae), oysters, clams and mussels. This method restores ecosystems while reducing the pressure on fish stocks, and capturing carbon and nitrogen both from our atmosphere and from the water column. Climate Heroes is a not-for-profit media project that aims to shed the light on those men and women who stand out by their values and actions, and can thus be set up as inspirational models to help us mitigate climate change. It specifically aims to: - Highlight positive actions that bring actual solutions - Offer the public a novel vision on climatic issues, more readily accessible through examples taken from a wide range of stakeholders, be they professional or citizens - Provoke thought, inspire and foster behavioral changes For more information visit: climateheroes.org

The Beginning of the Kelp Farm

James Douglas

The idea that I would be a farmer never crossed my mind. I, after all, am a low level executive manager at a learning science company. I spend time in virtual meetings, talking about ROI , market research and other things that are very boring for most people (myself included) to think about. I am a cog - a doer of spreadsheets - not a farmer. 

It was during a moment of clarity - or utter exhaustion form having a 4 week old baby - that I decided to reach out to Greenwave to talk about what it would take to farm kelp. Greenwave is a non-profit that put kelp farming on the map, locally at least. They are dedicated to restoring ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and building a blue-green economy. I wanted in. 

Jay and I had just purchased a marina and we were planning on moving in after many months of renovations. The marina was the first step in realizing our dream of living a simpler life. We wanted to own a business and work for ourselves. We wanted to be connected with the planet and raise the kids in a way that shows them how cool the world is - specifically the ocean and river that would be a few feet away from our new front door. 

The marina was step one. It provide meaningful work for Jay,  it provided a revenue stream dependent on the water, and most importantly, it let us mess about in boats. It left me, however, with two feet in the corporate world, and this was not acceptable. 

In an attempt to think outside the box and find a venture that I could be passionate about I thought of the sea - specifically kelp - and took to google. After reading a few articles and research papers,  I sent an email to Greenwave to learn  if Jay and I were located in a space that could support kelp. I wanted to see if this was an option. It was less than two days after that email that I got a response from the co-founder of the organization.

Emily called us to share some of the basics of kelp farming. She went over the general rules of thumb for farming: the depth we would need for the farm, the pains of the permitting process, the people with whom we should speak about what it really feels like to go through permitting, the market for kelp, and most important -  the support that Greenwave could offer. She hooked us on the idea so thoroughly that we began the process towards establishing a farm that very day.

It begins with reading and meetings. It was not the dramatic shift I was seeking from my 9-5 corporate job. We met with the state, we met with local authorities, we read through hand books on farming, we read through permitting applications, we presented site locations to the town, the harbor master, and to the local boating community. We had a few fun meetings, including getting to know the people at Greenwave in their New Haven location. Overall, the whole process was not terrible, but it was not fun. If there was an interest in going through some of these resources, many can be found here

After all this, it was time to formally apply. This is where Jay stepped in an took over. I don't know if his experience in the Marine Corp helped him tolerate the bureaucratic jargon and drawn out process but it was his tenacity and (glazed over at times) patience that allowed us to persist through this process. It's not just one permit - there are a few that you need to safely establish a farm. This is what we had to go through in the state of CT:

  1. Pre-Screening for Aquaculture Application: this was where we find the site and get it approved by all the peoples...all of them had to say yes. Kelp sites require specific depth, water flow, sunlight, must be away from eelgrass beds, and more. The site is hard to nail down....and even when you do ger approval, you wont know if the kelp will grow for a year.
  2. Structures Dredging and Fill permit (this is for CT). This includes a public notice portion which allows people to voice any issues with your site location. 
  3. Navigation Buoy Permit from CT DEEP

We started in September 2016 and as of today, we are working on the last permit. The process forces you you to really think about your site and consider how it will impact everything in the area: marine life, recreational boaters, other aqua-farmers, the water quality and other abiotic stuff, and your farm. It was a good process and I am somewhat relieved that there are check points to help people consider these things when setting up a farm. I feel prepared.

Take notice, would-be-farmers, the actual farming will be a ways down the road. The beginning is all about the plan.