Kelp: Why We Should Eat More According to Fisherman, Restaurateur and Dock To Dish Co-founder Sean Barrett

Written bySiani Abrahams
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Could your local coastline be harboring the most powerful carbon-capturing vegetable crop on the planet? Dock To Dish co-founder Sean Barrett, a seasoned fisherman and restaurateur, has long been one of the driving forces behind the sustainable seafood sourcing movement. Now, he’s embarking on a new mission – to get us excited about kelp.

New York was the first to witness Dock to Dish pioneering the state’s original Community Supported Fishery (CSF) the year after its 2012 inception, before going on to create a pilot program collaborating with restaurants. Delivering fresh, local fish through a transparent supply chain, the membership-based program has risen to meet international hunger for disrupting industrialized food systems. Almost a decade later, communities all over the world are adopting the model to embody a remarkable synergy between chefs, restaurateurs, fishermen, and consumers. Joining Dock to Dish is to “know your fisherman” – one way we can support local fishermen outside of the globalized commodities chain, to know who grows and who makes what we consume as part of a regenerative lifestyle. And kelp is at the forefront of Sean’s mission.

But what does kelp have to do with it? A type of seaweed, kelp has long been a staple umami ingredient in Asian cuisines, though its algin extract features far more in our daily routines than we might realize – from shower products to frozen foods. Recognizing and celebrating kelp’s invaluable role in battling the climate emergency in our oceans, Eat More Kelp is a project farming kelp regeneratively to make it local and accessible, helping to popularize the nutrient-rich vegetable at our dinner tables. Sean’s favorite tidbit about kelp? “Kelp actually has no roots. Instead, it attaches to rocks on the seafloor via a structure called a ‘holdfast.’ From that holdfast, it can then tower more than 100 feet off the bottom, growing at rates of up to two feet a day.”

We caught up with Sean to talk about all things kelp; from feeling the pull of the ocean as a child, climate cuisine whetting our appetites, the ingenious GreenWave Model leading regenerative ocean farming, to the groundbreaking work of Professor Jennifer Jacquet.

Eat More Kelp campaign
Photo credit: Eat More Kelp.

Can you tell us about your journey into the worlds of restorative ocean farming and kelp?

This has been a long and adventurous journey with many twists and turns. As far back as I can remember, as in my nursery school days, I was always obsessed with coastal waters and fish and anything that had to do with the ocean. My parents and family friends confirm this and still tell stories about a very young boy with an unusually powerful fascination and attraction to the sea. This developed shortly after I learned to walk and talk, they say. Matching that obsession, as I grew up, was a strong drive to bring healthy food to people. There was always something magnetic about that to me from my earliest memories. So as life went on, the combination of these two things led me on a path to start figuring out ways for people to begin sourcing food from the sea, then onto how to do that in the most sustainable ways. Ultimately, I started building Community Supported Fishery (CSF) projects, at first here on Long Island, but then that work started taking me to harbor towns all across the U.S. and eventually all over the world. Overseas we began to help indigenous populations of people in places like Panama, Nicaragua, and Fiji, to create CSF programs and deploy new methods for fishing and providing food to their communities. We went on to help get a program started in Cape Town, and then trained some legendary folks from the UK who now operate the SoleShare CSF out of London. The SoleShare CSF has since expanded to have satellite operations in 12 other British cities.

The way this all led to restorative ocean farming and kelp was that I realized at one point a few years back that the planet had too many people to sustainably feed fish to. I began to panic when that became clear to me. So I started researching alternatives to “fish as food” and discovered the work of a very forward-thinking and highly respected scholar at New York University named Jennifer Jacquet. Her ideas about farming oysters and mussels and clams were brilliant and made a lot of sense to me, and her linear arguments for focusing on “bivalves as food” turned on a light over my head. Her work and ideas made me realize that there was another way to go. So I read as much of her work as I could and studied many of her published papers, then watched all of her videos and read her book. Quickly I realized that she had discovered a real solution to the problems I had long been grappling with.

I was also introduced to the vision of an ocean farmer named Bren Smith along the way, and he started me thinking about farming not only oysters and mussels and clams, but also kelp. From there I just kept pushing forward to where we have arrived today. But looking back in the rear-view mirror, I can now see it was the work of Jennifer Jacquet which really served as an intense springboard for what we are doing now. One crucially important aspect of this work and vision that we also credit to Jacquet is in always making the distinction between “regenerative ocean farming” for bivalves and macro-algae and aquatic vegetation – versus the increasingly devastating “industrial finfish ocean farming” plague, which is extractive and absolutely unsustainable in nearly all forms.

Kelp forest
Photo credit: Eat More Kelp.

What is your experience of climate change’s effects in our oceans? 

Anyone who is over 30 years of age and grew up on a coast near the ocean, and spent a lot of time working on or in the water, will all tell you – if they are being honest and grounded in reality – that they have seen major changes to those coastal ecosystems that they grew up in. We know that these changes were caused by the rapid transformation of the climate, which is being caused by too much carbon in the atmosphere. Here in the Port of Shinnecock, which is New York’s second-largest fishing port, growing up, I learned almost every species of fish and bird in this area before I was ten years old. I became very familiar with the natural cycles of seasons, tides, temperatures, and weather from an early age. Relying on a baseline of your own experience is important, because often people read about the changing climate in books or magazines, or hear about it on TV or radio, and it doesn’t seem real. But if you have experienced something firsthand, you cannot deny it. I often tell people that you can see climate change in the oceans much more clearly than on land. The once iconic and ubiquitous Long Island lobster, for example, has completely migrated out of the area because the water has warmed. Black sea bass, historically indigenous to the North Carolina area, has relocated to the northern mid-Atlantic, overrunning our area and wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. We had southern Brown Pelicans in New York Harbor in January this year. These birds rarely make it this far north in summer months, never mind during the dead of winter. These are the canaries in the coal mine of climate change. These shifting migration patterns, with entire populations of fish and birds moving north to find cooler temperatures, is the same as standing at the Eiffel Tower and watching a herd of zebras and wildebeests run by. Because the ocean migration shifts happen underwater where most people cannot see them, they don’t seem real. I can assure you they are real, and nothing could be more alarming. Once again this is an area where the work of Professor Jacquet helped me understand a fuller picture and see how rapidly these changes were happening, not only locally, but everywhere. She also helped me understand how people could possibly be in denial about these changes, and her work explaining intra- and intergenerational discounting in the climate game was a real eye-opener.

What is the mission and message of the Eat More Kelp campaign? 

This is so intentionally simplistic that I dare not complicate it with too many thoughts or words. The mission is to build awareness and encourage people to eat more kelp, while the pure and singular message we are trying to convey to people with all of this work is that they should: Eat More Kelp!

Tell us about the Community Supported Kelp Crop (CSKC) project. 

In the U.S. there is a long arc of history with land-based food coming from farms that is well-documented and easy to understand. This is where we found the blueprint for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) which, in the U.S., first began in a small Long Island town called Amagansett, at a farm named Quail Hill, back in the 1980s. Then about a decade ago we began successfully applying that CSA model to food coming from the ocean, with the first Community Supported Fishery (CSF) programs. The model is a radical departure from the globalized commodities system where most people on the planet source food from. The structure and mechanics of our Community Supported model eliminate long chains of custody by connecting the consumer directly to the source of their food in a membership-based format that revolves around forward contracting for locally farmed produce and well-managed wild seafood. Now we have arrived at the intersection in the U.S. where kelp farming is beginning to take root, and Americans are beginning to look to the oceans as a place where sea greens and ocean vegetables can be grown and harvested. The Community Supported Kelp Crop (CSKC) project is the vehicle we are using to begin establishing a marketplace for the inaugural kelp farmers of New York while directly involving the coastal communities that are needed to support their work.

There is a ceaseless cascade of ecological, economical, and cultural benefits embedded into the CSKC model – and these are all essential components that the fledgling kelp farming industry will need in order to build a strong foundation and eventually flourish.

Eat More Kelp campaign
Photo credit: Eat More Kelp.

What makes the project’s kelp farming regenerative? 

Our farmers use the GreenWave Model, which is a polyculture farming system growing a mix of seaweeds and shellfish that require zero inputs—making it the most sustainable form of food production on the planet—while sequestering carbon and rebuilding reef ecosystems. Since our farms sit vertically below the surface, they produce high yields with a small footprint. With a low barrier to entry, anyone with 20 acres, a boat, and $20-50K can start their own farm. Regenerative ocean farming has been identified as a key solution to climate change. It has the power to sequester carbon on land and sea, reduce methane production in livestock, rebuild marine ecosystems, enrich soil, and potentially address the global plastics problem. 

Can kelp play a role against climate change in our oceans? 

Absolutely yes. Through a mix of reforestation and regenerative ocean farming, recent studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that growing seaweed in 3.8% of federal waters off the California Coast could completely neutralize California’s agricultural carbon emissions. According to the World Bank, farming seaweeds in less than 5% of U.S. waters could absorb 10 million tons of nitrogen and 135 million tons of carbon – all with no freshwater or other inputs. Researchers at Yale University are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, Yale scientists say kelp could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life. We are currently experimenting with building kelp “halos” around bivalve farms, and the results are beginning to confirm that there is a decrease in acidity within the halo, leading to healthier bivalves that have increased calcium in their shells, which is only possible through lower ocean acidity.

You foresee larger industrial food players’ co-opting the language; why is it important for small-scale ocean agriculture to protect against this? 

For sure. We know this is coming because we have experienced it so many times before in other realms. For larger industrialized operators, there is a perpetual need to rebrand themselves and disguise their true identity from the public who are becoming increasingly educated about the unsustainable and profiteering nature of corporate interests in our societies and ecologies. The fastest and easiest way for these corporate juggernauts to camouflage themselves and hoodwink consumers is to extract language, terms, values, and concepts from the small-scale producer communities – and then weave those into the public-facing marketing facade that large corporations spend huge sums of money to create and hide behind. So, for example, words like “local” and “community” and “family farmer” will be taken from the authentic operators who can rightly fly those flags, and suddenly begin appearing in the marketing lexicon of giant corporations and in their advertising to the public. In reality, these corporations represent the opposite of what those words and terms connote, and these giants are the enemy of the true “local community family farmers.” This savage and dishonest tactic is known as “greenwashing,” and sadly it has become widespread in the marketplace today. The result is that consumers get duped and community farmers get manipulated while the corporations maximize shareholder value. 

To break that cycle and fight back against this, we have learned to take a very aggressive stance with both legally protecting our language with trademarks and also publicly shaming corporations who we find engaging in greenwashing in order to deter that behavior. Many of the countermeasures we learned to fight back against huge industrialized corporate interests, in a genuine David and Goliath fashion, were explained to us in Professor Jacquet’s book, Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool. As the small proverbial David in these confrontations, Jacquet’s book became the slingshot that we began to use in order to slay corporate giants.

Kelp forest
Photo credit: Eat More Kelp.

How does Dock to Dish and the CSKC project challenge industrialized food systems? 

The true power that has driven CSF programs like Dock to Dish, and is now beginning to drive the new CSKC initiative is the word Community. Once the concept unites the people of a given community behind it, suddenly it gains strength and momentum which can be channelled to deliver impacts and change. When Dock to Dish first began, many people and especially larger corporate operators scoffed at the idea, saying it was impossible to convince communities to join memberships into local small-scale fishing communities and abandon the global commodities chains. Fast-forward ten years later and nearly all of New York City’s top restaurants as well as major corporations like Google have joined the program and adopted the philosophy. The industrialized food system loathes small, scrappy operations like us and calls us “disruptors.” One of our mentors, a genius-level chef and author named Dan Barber, explained to us years ago that when these large industrial players are agitated and disrupted by our behaviors and impacts, then that means we are doing a good job. We are calibrating the CSKC to have the same disruptive impacts as the CSF model did, and we are aiming our efforts at the same industrial food complex that we’ve been warring with for decades. With the power of our community driving us, it’s safe to say there will be fireworks in the forecast. 

What do you hope for the future of CSKC projects and climate cuisine? 

I hope 50 or 100 years from now, humanity will have come to its collective senses and gone through a complete restructuring of its relationship with this beautiful blue planet that we call home. These first small symbolic steps, like the first CSKC and engineering of a new climate cuisine, will eventually be viewed as tools that shifted paradigms, disrupted the status quo, and instigated change. But I am not naïve, and there is an intense amount of work ahead. And my vision of a hopeful trajectory can only be achieved by an honoring, and adhering to, good science. So my overarching hope is that one day, people will look back on the scientific and academic communities of today and be able to see how leaders from these realms, like Professor Jacquet, pulled the fire alarm and sparked a global movement that saved life on earth. Without these people dedicating their lives to banging the war drum and educating everyone about both what is happening now and what needs to happen in the coming years to correct the course we are on, we would have been totally lost and doomed. 

Who should we be following or keeping up to date with in the ocean farming and kelp scenes right now? 

Professor Jennifer Jacquet at New York University.

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