This past January, Danielle Hopson Begun stuck toe warmers to the bottom of her thickest socks before stepping into a thermal waterproof suit of camouflaged waders and shoulder-high gloves. She was spending the day planting kelp in Long Island’s Shinnecock Bay, across the water from her Shinnecock Indian Nation. It was 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and she would have to try to keep warm and dry while standing in cold, waist-deep seawater for hours. “Once you get wet, your time is limited,” she said.
Hopson Begun never imagined she would enter such frigid waters, let alone become an ocean farmer. She was already working full-time as a social worker for toddlers with disabilities. But in 2019, when her cousin Tela Troge asked if she’d be interested in joining her and several other Shinnecock women to co-found the first Indigenous-owned sugar kelp farming collective on the East Coast, she didn’t hesitate. “I said yes with an open heart.”
The Shinnecock people have lived and survived off of the coast of what is now eastern Long Island for more than 10,000 years. Now, the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers—co-founded by six grandmothers, lawyers and activists—are renewing their ancestors’ relationship to seaweed to mitigate the impacts of climate change and help restore the waters surrounding their people’s territory. Sugar kelp is indigenous to New York but has suffered widespread decline in the last 30 years due to coastal development that has destroyed its habitat and warming temperatures, which have forced the cold water-loving marine algae to start migrating north.
Quelling Blooming Problems
Long Island’s Shinnecock Bay to the south and Peconic Bay to the north have been plagued by decades of pollution caused by real estate development and rapid population growth in Southampton. Toxic sewage and fertilizer runoff has sparked periodic harmful algal blooms that have suffocated coastal marine life.
As ocean temperatures warm, glaciers melt and storm surges increase sea levels. By 2050, parts of the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s territory located on “the neck,” a peninsula that juts into Shinnecock Bay, could be underwater according to a climate vulnerability assessment conducted by the Peconic Estuary Partnership in 2019.
Unprecedented summer heat waves during the past four years have also killed off most of the local scallop population. In addition, the water is becoming more acidic as it absorbs excess atmospheric carbon dioxide emitted from sources such as coal-fired power plants. The result is that shellfish such as mussels and clams, including the quahog, cannot grow their shells properly. Their shells have become so thin and brittle that Shinnecock artisans now struggle to make wampum beads for jewelry and other adornments out of the deep purple and white quahog shells.
Kelp, a type of seaweed, can counter some of these threats. Like trees, it can sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide that fuels global warming. Additionally, it helps clean polluted waterways by absorbing harmful nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus contained in chemical-laden fertilizers and wastewater that run off land and into the ocean. It can also reduce acidification levels while helping shield vulnerable coastlines from storm surges and providing habitat for wildlife. Snails and waterfowl like to snack on it, while fish and other marine life seek refuge amid its leaves.
Ancient Traditions, New Partnerships
“Shinnecock” is an Algonquian word that translates to “people of the stony shore.” Until recently, these Indigenous peoples harvested various kinds of seaweeds from their natural habitats along the rocky shoreline or that had washed onto land. “Seaweed is in our blood,’’ said Rebecca Genia, a Shinnecock elder and co-founder of the kelp collective. “It is vital to our survival as water protectors and Indigenous peoples of this region.”
The Shinnecock traditionally used seaweed as insulation for their dome-shaped dwellings known as wickiups or wigwams that were made of tree saplings and mats of woven cattails, bark or animal hides. According to Shinnecock elder and kelp farmer Darlene Troge, mother of Tela Troge, they also used seaweed to make medicines, cosmetics and soap. More recent generations have continued to use these plants as a natural pest repellent, sprinkling it around the perimeter of their homes. Freshly harvested clams are also often steamed on the beach in sand pits lined with seaweed, infusing the shellfish with an extra briny flavor.
“For us to be doing kelp cultivation is a return to those traditional practices,” said the elder Troge. “But we have partners that are helping us with the science.”
Farming kelp in the United States is a relatively new practice. It was developed in large part by Charles Yarish, a marine biologist who began studying seaweed aquaculture in the early 1980s. Yarish serves as chief scientist at GreenWave, a nonprofit organization based in Connecticut that offers technical support and training in regenerative ocean farming. This is a system of growing seaweed and shellfish such as oysters together in order to improve water quality and aquatic habitat as well as create jobs.
Part of the organization’s mission is to ensure marginalized communities—especially Indigenous peoples with close ties to the ocean—not only benefit from but lead in the growing seaweed industry. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), kelp farming is the fastest growing sector in U.S. aquaculture.
In 2019, GreenWave staff learned of the Shinnecock people’s decades-long struggle to protect their land and cultural heritage from destructive development on Long Island through a documentary called “Conscience Point.” They reached out to Genia, whose role as a lifelong activist is central to the film, to see if any tribal members would be interested in starting a kelp farm.
“Indigenous peoples who live along the coast are [its] ancestral stewards and guardians and have been for thousands of years,” said Dune Lankard, an Eyak-Athabaskan of the Eagle Clan from Eyak (Cordova), Alaska. Lankard is the founder and president of the Native Conservancy, the first Native-owned and Native-led land trust in the United States, which empowers Indigenous communities in Alaska to start their own marine farms through hands-on training and small grants that enable them to apply for ocean farming permits.
“Paving the way for Native people to break into this new ocean industry ensures that Native people will once again be the guardians of marine environments so they will be protected and restored,” said Lankard. “I really believe that these new ocean farms can be the new waterkeepers.”
However, breaking into this new frontier that Lankard said resembles “a modern-day land claim happening on the ocean” can be difficult. Native and non-Native prospective farmers often face cumbersome red tape and unclear or nonexistent permitting processes. According to the Pew Research Center, kelp farmers in Washington state have to go through nine agencies to obtain the necessary permits. In New York, seaweed farming was not legal until December 2021, when Governor Kathy Hochul signed “The Kelp Bill,” which allows Suffolk County on Long Island to lease areas of the state’s Peconic and Gardiners Bays for seaweed cultivation. Now, farmers must obtain permits from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
“If no one else is seaweed farming, it’s because they can’t get permits,” said Tela Troge, who, in addition to being a kelp farmer, is an attorney for the Shinnecock Indian Nation. “But we are not bound by that because of the ‘seaweed cases.’” During the 1600s, colonists and leaders of the Shinnecock Indian Nation signed a series of agreements that affirmed the tribe’s rights to lease blocks of seaweed to non-Native people in the Shinnecock and Peconic Bays. This series of deeds came to be known as the “seaweed cases,” and served as instrumental pieces of evidence the nation used to gain federal recognition in 2010. Now, Troge said, the farmers will use these deeds again to assert their people’s sovereignty if officials challenge their small-scale kelp farming operation. “We are hopeful that we could settle this confusion once and for all and make it clear that members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation have full rights to engage in aquaculture, hunting and fishing in traditional tribal territory,” she said.
In 2020, Troge and the rest of the founding Shinnecock Kelp Farmers traveled to GreenWave’s state-of-the-art hatchery in Connecticut. There they learned how scuba divers collect reproductive tissue from wild kelp and grow it in a lab until it is planted. But the Shinnecock farmers still needed a place for their own hatchery and farm. Since they didn’t have a boat and needed to haul out heavy equipment such as anchors for their kelp lines, they needed a place within walking access to the bay.
They decided to reach out to the Sisters of St. Joseph for help. The sisters have a 7.5-acre waterfront summer retreat center in Long Island’s Hampton Bays, land that once belonged to the Shinnecock people before European colonists took it from them in the 1800s. The Catholic convent has been based on Long Island for nearly 200 years. Only recently, however, have the sisters begun cultivating a relationship with the Shinnecock Indian Nation. In 2019, Genia contacted the sisters on behalf of The Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society to see if some of their ancestral remains recovered from a university in Virginia could be reburied in a cemetery on the convent’s main campus in Brentwood. Ever since the burial ceremony in June 2019 the women have continued to search for ways to reconcile a complicated relationship.
“This was Shinnecock land, and we recognize that,” said Sister Karen Burke, who oversees the sisters’ environmental projects. She said donating one of their summer cottages to the farmers so they could set up their hatchery and plant their crops offshore in view of the Shinnecock Indian Nation was a “no brainer.” Not only would it benefit the environment, it also provided a path to begin healing. “It’s a wonderful way to begin the reconciliation process and help us to save Mother Earth together,” said Darlene Troge, Tela’s mother. “We have really developed a sisterhood that’s not only loving but very powerful.”
A Growing Industry
From Hawaii to Maine, dozens of ocean farms throughout the United States are growing various types of seaweed to make natural fertilizers, paper, animal feed, plastic alternatives and a variety of food products such as burgers, jerky, salsas, hot sauces and furikake, a dried condiment commonly sprinkled on rice, soups and salads. Someday, it may even be used to produce a low-carbon biofuel.
In March, legislation was proposed that would direct NOAA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to evaluate the benefits and impacts of seaweed farming. It also would reduce cost barriers for Indigenous communities who wished to farm kelp.
In time, the Shinnecock farmers hope to grow enough kelp not only to help restore their waterways but also to generate income for their community. This past winter marked their third growing season, and they are anticipating their largest yield yet. They planted more than 15,000 feet of seeded kelp lines in the bay—more than 10 times the amount of last year’s crop.
Most of what they harvest will be dried and ground down into a natural soil amendment that will be sold to local businesses. The women have started contacting vineyards, golf courses and landscaping companies to offer their eco-friendly soil amendment as a substitute for conventional fertilizers. “We’re always looking to target those large-scale polluters,” said Hopson Begun.
In the coming years, the farmers intend to scale-up their production by building a permanent, state-of-the-art hatchery at the Sisters of St. Joseph’s retreat and increasing the number of sites where they farm in the bay. They recently received a $75,000 grant from The Nature Conservancy to support their expansion.
This past January, Hopson Begun prepared to transplant the young kelp growing in the temporary hatchery to the bay. She had to hurry to take advantage of the low tide. She carefully began dipping her hands into the hatchery’s aquariums to fetch the sections of PVC pipes wrapped in a nylon-cotton blend string. The spools were covered in a gold fuzz made up of millimeter-long, young kelp blades. She carefully cushioned them in paper towels and deposited them into a cooler to transport them to the bay where other kelp farmers would be joining her.
As she entered the water, Hopson Begun felt the intensity of the elements and entered a “state of flow,” she said. Calmly, she demonstrated to a new Shinnecock farmer how to unfurl the golden threads of kelp around lines of mint-colored rope she had helped anchor to the bay bottom days before. “It’s a meditation,” she said. Standing in the water, she witnesses nature in a unique way. One time while planting kelp, she watched in awe as swans performed mating dances nearby, their necks intertwining. “It really left me feeling that we were all connected,” she said.
Tying off her last line of kelp to be planted that day, she shared a few encouraging words with the young seedlings. She told them she would be checking on them in the coming weeks as the winds and weather changed, and that she just needed them to “hold on.”