The Hughes Hatchery at the north end of Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs looks like it was decorated by a mad scientist with a warehouse of aquarium equipment. Towering tubes hold bubbling green and yellow liquid, while an elevated blue tub serves as a playground for baby scallops, floating in the water like toddlers learning to walk.
Along the right wall, among churning goblets of varying colors and opacity, is a jug of clear water. In it, imperfect spheres of spiny auburn algae swirl in bubbler-induced turbulence.
This is gracilaria, a red algae used as food and as raw material for laboratory equipment. Its cultivation is a multi-billion dollar industry, but it has never been commercialized on the island. With the help of scientists on the island and beyond, Greg and Dan Martino, owners of Cottage City Oysters, aim to change that.
Last year, the Oak Bluffs Oyster Society received a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to conduct research into the cultivation and marketing of gracilaria in the area.
“We were looking for a summer seaweed,” Dan Martino said. “We already grow kelp on the farm, but it’s a winter only seaweed, and with climate change we’re seeing shorter and shorter growing seasons every year. Guess in a decade kelp won’t even be growing here. »
Innovation-minded producers are usually prioritized for grants, said Emma Green-Beach, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. She teamed up with Cottage City, helping them with the technical aspects of the process, along with Dr. Emma Cross of Southern Connecticut State University.
But the innovation needed to bring gracilaria to market is not just technical. Seaweed as a food has historically had a negligible market in the United States. They’re governed by a kind of circular logic, Ms. Green-Beach explained: “People don’t eat it because they can’t buy it, because the stores don’t have stock. because nobody grows it, because people don’t buy it, etc.
A major component of the project will be to increase local awareness and interest in seaweed as an ingredient. Cottage City will be offering free samples to patrons of the Farmers Market, as well as giveaways to Island chefs for culinary experimentation.
The seaweed is, of course, salty, with a sweet ocean flavor that stops short of the fish. “The texture is really great,” Mr. Martino said as he crunched on a fresh piece of the ocean, “put some vinegar and oil on it, and you have a fluffy salad.”
So far, the crop of garcilaria they have selected has been grown under controlled conditions, under the watchful eyes of Mrs. Green-Beach and Nick Cranston, a recent graduate of a regional high school and recipient of a Vineyard Vision scholarship. , who will study marine biology at Tulane. . It grows prodigiously and the Martino brothers hope to replant it on lines next to their shells this week. They also hope that the intercropping strategy will be beneficial for both crops.
A growing body of research points to a positive relationship between algal culture and bivalve growth, Green-Beach said. “Macro algae absorb excess carbon dioxide from the water,” she explained, “which could otherwise make the ocean more acidic and give seashells softer shells.” Algae, too, could benefit from this relationship since they can benefit from the ammonia that bivalves release as waste.
Aquaculture is a fickle thing and the team expects mixed results in this first year of the grant process. They hope to increase production next year, hopefully after a few chefs have developed a taste for this stuff.
“I think a lot of people like the idea of seaweed,” Dan Martino said. “There’s just no way to get it.”