Connecticut fisherman cashes in on kelp trend

As part of our series "Real Food," we take a look at the growing trend of kelp. The seaweed is rich in nutrients and antioxidants and is a common ingredient in sushi.

Lately, it's been popping up in salads and soups. It's also considered a healthy snack alternative.

CBS News' Michelle Miller met a Connecticut fisherman-turned-seaweed farmer who sees a future in kelp.

·         Plant material being used to extend shelf life of fruit and vegetables 

·         The growing trend of vertical farming

While the ocean covers more than 70 percent of the earth, it produces less than two percent of the food we eat.

On the Connecticut shore a simple harvesting technique is paying off for fishermen no longer able to rely on a steady supply of fish.

They're betting that this nutritious sea vegetable can be a mainstay of the American diet.

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CBS News

These waters off Connecticut's Thimble Islands were once abundant with lobster, shad and flounder. Not anymore. 
 
That's why Bren Smith, who dropped out of high school to become a fisherman, has laid down his hooks, his nets and his traps to farm something entirely different.

"What we're growin' mainly here is kelp," Smith said. 
 
He calls these sea greens the next food trend. According to at least one laboratory test, kelp, a variety of seaweed, has more iron than beef, is high in calcium and low in calories 
 
Fresh kelp grows like weeds in the fall and winter months and is then harvested in the spring.  
 
"So we have--anchors going down to the bottom just with ropes, and then across--eight feet below the surface, we've got a horizontal rope, and then we grow our kelp down from there," Smith said. 
 
"And our job is to let it get enough light and--enough nutrients so we just keep it at the right height and the water color. And that's kelp farming," Smith said. 

Smith leases 20 acres of ocean from the town of Branford, Connecticut. 
 
His startup cost? About $20,000.  
 
He says in a good year, he can reap about 20,000 pounds of kelp per acre.

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CBS News

In terms of profit, Smith said, "Yeah, so we-- so the net is about $130,000 a year and we're able to get about a dollar a pound off the docks."

For centuries, fishermen have made a living off the coast of Maine to the mid-Atlantic region. But scientists say climate change and over-fishing have transformed the fishing industry. 
 
Smith says kelp farming is a sustainable solution for fishermen and the environment.

"The oceans are just changing and we need to diversify," according to Smith. 

"It takes zero input to grow this, so no fertilizer, no feeds, no freshwater. While we're growing we're soaking up nitrogen, carbon. It soaks up five times more carbon than land-based plants. We call it the culinary equivalent of the electric car," Smith said. 
 
Smith is also expanding his company's processing plant in New Haven, Connecticut. 

"This is where the magic happens. This is where we make our kelp noodles," Smith said. 
 
Fresh kelp is first blanched, and then cut into strips. 

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Orders for these greens are ten times more than what they can harvest. 
 
"The whole idea here is to use this processing plant as the funnel end of New York City. So we-- we have farms from Maine all the way down the coast--and then their product comes through here, we process it and then truck it out," Smith explained. 

He trucks it to restaurants like Caseus where chef Alex Lishchynsky creates kelp dishes that are new found delicacies to his customers—like kelp bolognese.

Lishchynsky is turning the table on how people view seaweed… it's not just for salads anymore, although he does make those with a twist.

Smith and his nonprofit organization, GreenWave, has helped establish 10 kelp farmers this year, and hopes to sign 15 more farmers by next year. 

And the goal is to get fresh seaweed sold in supermarkets.