Seaweed farming's 'Green Revolution' slowed by red tape - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Seaweed farming's 'Green Revolution' slowed by red tape

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SOUTHOLD, New York (NBC) - Seaweed cultivation in the U.S. is growing quickly, cresting on its promise as a sustainable, low-impact form of aquaculture that could help feed millions. But tough state rules surrounding commercial use of coastal resources are preventing many would-be entrepreneurs from diving into the market.

Fifteen farms currently have permits to commercially grow kelp in the Northeast, up from zero prior to 2008, according to Dr. Charles Yarish, an internationally recognized seaweed expert and professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut in Stamford. Some of the new farms are using a technique known as vertical or 3-D farming - using the water column to grow a mix of seaweed and shellfish - to get the most out of their relatively small operations.

Most would-be kelp farmers on the West Coast, however, are in limbo as states work to establish regulations. Thus far only Washington has regulations in place, and just one research project under way. One farmer who has leased a former kelp research plot in Southern California hopes to begin farming there as soon as the state approves the transfer.

Even in states where regulations are in place, however, the permitting process is "very onerous," Yarish said, with approval required from both state and federal authorities.

Yarish says the approval process is deliberate because regulators are determined to avoid environmental damage - including excessive nutrient discharge, escapes of farmed animals and spread of disease - inflicted by some big aquaculture operations of decades past.

Many states also are moving slowly because "coastal managers are invariably very skittish about doing something new without statutory authority," he said.

Interest is seaweed has been peaking in recent years, both because of its nutritional value -- it is packed with vitamins A, B and C, as well as iron and protein -- and its minimal environmental footprint: It requires no fertilizers and in fact helps clean seawater by absorbing nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment facilities and runoff from farms and urban areas.

The Northeast coastal states - Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island - all have regulatory frameworks in place for kelp farming. Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island all have commercial operations in production, with farms in New York and New Hampshire expected to raise their first crops later this year.

On the West Coast, Alaska, California and Oregon all are working on creating regulatory frameworks. (Kelp - a large, brown edible form of seaweed -- thrives in colder water, hence the interest from northern states; other types of seaweed might eventually be able to be raised in warmer southern waters, according to Yarish.)

In addition to obtaining a lease and getting state approval, kelp farms need federal aquaculture permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yarish said the agency "gets it" as far as the economic and environmental benefits of kelp and has not been a bottleneck in the permitting process.

Read the full story on NBC News.

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