A 21st century riddle for you: What's slimy, green and brown, sometimes smelly and disgusting, but also a potentially wonderful anti-pollution tool that's good to eat and could turn into an economic pot of gold for Connecticut?
The answer, of course, is seaweed.
That's right, the same sort of icky stuff that can pile up at the beach or wrap around your legs when you're walking through the waves at Hammonasset or Silver Sands.
Seaweed has got a lot of Connecticut folks all hot and bothered these days. They include scientists at the University of Connecticut, state aquaculture honchos, federal and state marine experts, environmentalists, students at a Bridgeport science and technical school, and a shellfishing outfit in Branford that wants to become this state's first seaweed-farming operation.
Connecticut's legislature is right now considering a bill to create a new and much simpler licensing system to make it easier for potential seaweed farmers to start growing the stuff in Long Island Sound.
One major reason for all the excitement is that seaweed turns out to be a great way to suck up some of the nitrogen pollution that's been screwing up Long Island Sound.
"I made that suggestion 20 years ago to the EPA and no one was interested," Charles Yarish says with a chuckle.
Yarish is a top researcher with UConn's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Marine Sciences and the acknowledged guru of seaweed farming. He's been studying seaweed — as a source of food for humans and livestock as well as an anti-pollution engine — for decades.
"We are the leading [seaweed] operation in the U.S. right now," Yarish says with pride.
Yarish has been growing seaweed in his Stamford lab and in Long Island Sound plots off Fairfield and the mouth of the Bronx River for years. Those seaweed farms have produced some astonishing numbers for cutting nitrogen pollution in seawater.
Nitrogen gets into the Sound from sewage treatment plants (there are 79 in Connecticut alone), industrial waste, agricultural farmland and from all the fertilizer spread on suburban lawns that gets washed into rivers and streams.
All those tons and tons of nitrogen trigger huge blooms in aquatic plants. They die and get eaten by bacteria and algae, which use up most of the oxygen in the water. In some parts of the Sound, this pollution cycle can suffocate or drive away other marine organisms like fish and lobsters. It's the nitrogen pollution that causes those red and brown "tides" of algae that force officials to occasionally shut down beaches.
Yarish gets all whipped up when talking about how much nitrogen his seaweed can remove from the Sound's waters. (The seaweed simply takes up and processes the stuff, just the way plants on land take up fertilizer, and the nitrogen that's a pollutant in seawater is turned into edible vegetable matter in the plants.)
In a one hectare (that's about 2.47 acres) plot, Yarish has achieved from six-to-eight kilos of nitrogen removed in an October test, to 33-60 kilos (as much as 145 pounds) of nitrogen removed from the water in a July experiment.
"It's a huge nitrogen remover," says Kristin DeRosia-Banick, a state environmental analyst with the Bureau of Aquaculture.
Yarish and his colleagues are cultivating seaweed seeds (one type for a summer crop called "sea asparagus" and another for a winter crop known as "sugar kelp") in tanks at their UConn lab. He's helped get one seaweed farm going in Maine and is working on another that's ready to harvest its first crop next month from the waters off Branford's Thimble Islands.
The seaweed is grown attached to long lines anchored in waters 20-25 feet deep, and when it's long enough, the farmer cuts off the vegetation and brings it to shore for processing or sale.
The kicker to all this is that the seaweed these people are growing can be eaten. (It's always been used as a fertilizer — Native Americans were doing that when the settlers arrived from Europe.)
It's good for animal food, and more and more restaurants across the country are finding ways to use seaweed beyond sushi. Seaweed is being touted as a fantastic health food that can help with everything from weight loss to lowering blood pressure.
In fact, Yarish told lawmakers, there are 50 pounds of "high-quality, vacuum-packed kelp pasta noodles" stored in a freezer at the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center. All that's needed is state approval and those noodles could be sold to restaurants and consumers.
The state's first commercial seaweed farm, run by the Thimble Island Oyster Co., is also awaiting approval from state health and consumer protection officials to start selling its product.
All these products need to be tested to make sure the harvested seaweed that's taking so much nitrogen out of the Sound's waters isn't also being contaminated by other pollutants. State officials don't believe that's going to happen, since the seaweed being grown now is from plots near state-approved shellfish beds that have no contamination issues.
"We made the conclusion several years ago that seaweed is a great opportunity… in several different areas," says David Carey, director of Connecticut's Bureau of Aquaculture.
Seaweed farming is a huge global business, generating more than $7 billion a year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The plan in Connecticut is to get the Thimble Island operation licensed and the Bridgeport aquaculture school approved for processing as much as half of the farm's seaweed for sale.
Carey and other officials see this as a winning proposition for everybody: it can offer jobs and cash for hard-pressed shell fishermen who take to growing seaweed near their beds; it helps clean up the Sound, which improves things for recreational fishermen and everybody else who enjoys the water; and those farming licenses and sales can produce revenue for the state.
There are even plans to get the commercial raising of mussels (which are also raised attached to lines in the same sort of system as seaweed) going in Connecticut waters in combination with the kelp farming.
All those 150-foot long lines of seaweed, of course, could pose problems for boaters and fishermen. But Carey doesn't think that's going to be an issue.
"Those small farms could fit in a lot of places in Long Island Sound without conflicts," says Carey.
So all you locavore/health nuts out there, listen up: It won't be too long now until you can go to your local sushi dive or seafood spot or veggie hangout and order up some locally grown kelp for your dinner.