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‘The return of land to Indigenous people is key’: Q&A with Shinnecock Kelp Farm’s Tela Troge

Sugar kelp hanging on its growing lines. Image courtesy of Claudia Geib for Mongabay.

Sugar kelp hanging on its growing lines. Image courtesy of Claudia Geib for Mongabay.

  • A group of women of the Shinnecock Nation manage the first Indigenous-owned kelp farm on the United States’ East Coast, and are ready to harvest this year’s first batch.
  • The people of the Shinnecock Nation have lived on Shinnecock Bay, on the east end of Long Island, New York, since the end of the last Ice Age. But overdevelopment on unceded tribal land is leading to nitrogen pollution, which is killing marine life.
  • The Shinnecock Kelp Farm is farming sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) in hopes that it will absorb some of the water’s excess nitrogen.
  • Tela Troge, one of the six women running the Shinnecock Kelp Farm, met with Mongabay to talk about the future of this effort, and how farming kelp could help Shinnecock Nation regain sovereignty over waters they have tended for generations.

When is seaweed much more than seaweed? In the United States, seaweed farms are sprouting up all over the country, but on the east end of Long Island, New York, a new project cultivating kelp in the waters of Shinnecock Bay is more than a follower of a new trend. The Shinnecock Kelp Farm is the first Indigenous-owned seaweed farm on the East Coast. Its founders hope that it may alter the course of a bay devastated by pollution — and, perhaps, restore the sovereignty of the tribe that cultivated these waters for millennia.

“It really goes back to this concept of reciprocity; Indigenous people know that if we take care of Mother Earth, that Mother Earth will then take care of us,” says Tela Troge, one of the six women running the farm. Troge is also a member of the Shinnecock Nation, the tribe that lived on the bay since the end of the last Ice Age.

Tela Troge heads back into shore from the kelp lines. Behind her and to the right you can see Shinnecock Nation territory. Image courtesy of Claudia Geib for Mongabay.

“We’re taught to think ahead for the next seven generations,” she tells Mongabay. “It’s really a lot of what drives us in educating and sharing our message, and hopefully getting others engaged in taking action to protect the water now.”

Shinnecock Bay is tucked into the south fork of Long Island, which splits like the tail of a fish as the island stretches east from New York City. Over the past three centuries, development on unceded ancestral tribal land brought septic systems and fertilizer that has leaked into Shinnecock Bay, creating an excess of nitrogen in its waters. This nitrogen fostered excessive algae growth and clouded the water, setting off a domino effect that killed plants, fish and shellfish.

In 2019, a film about Shinnecock activist Becky Hill-Geniah’s fight to return stolen Shinnecock lands to the Indigenous community caught the attention of GreenWave, a nonprofit that funds ocean farms. The organization approached the Shinnecock Nation to ask if they would be interested in developing a marine farm of their own.

“I became really fascinated by this project because I was so aware of the importance of the seaweed cases and our federal acknowledgement,” Troge says.

Troge is also a lawyer who studied agreements the tribe had with colonists, which gave the Shinnecock people the right to harvest seaweed in the bay. These agreements helped the tribe achieve federal recognition in 2010. Yet even with their tribal harvesting rights, Troge says the New York State Department of Environment Conservation is notorious for harassing tribal members who go out fishing.

“So, I felt that the act of cultivating seaweed … was a really powerful way to assert our tribal sovereignty over the water,” Troge says.

Soon after its founding, the Shinnecock Kelp Farm formed a collaboration with the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic organization that focuses on environmental justice. The nuns donated space in their retreat center that sits directly on the edge of Shinnecock Bay. There, the newly minted farmers nurtured sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) from microscopic cells to young plants ready to transport into their farm.

The team hopes that the harvested kelp — and, in the future, farmed shellfish — can absorb some of the excess nitrogen in Shinnecock Bay, reversing decades of pollution. But Troge says her team can’t fix this problem alone.

“We are a collective of six intergenerational Indigenous women, and we’re doing our part, but we need to build a huge network — a huge collective of kelp farmers,” she says. “We need to meaningfully mitigate a lot of the damage that is happening, and we’ll only be able to do that if we can get as much kelp into the water as possible.”

Still damp from wading into the choppy Shinnecock Bay, Troge spoke with Mongabay at the Sisters of St. Joseph’s seaside villa about the farm’s future, and the potential of kelp to rectify some of the harms of the past. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sugar kelp grown by the Native Conservancy in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Image by Tesia Bobrycki/Native Conservancy.

INTERVIEW WITH TELA TROGE

Mongabay: Why did you choose to cultivate kelp at your farm? What is the link between the Shinnecock Nation and marine plants?

Tela Troge: The Shinnecock Nation has a very long history involving seaweed. We are surrounded by the Shinnecock Bay, the Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. So, it’s really just been a very abundant natural resource for us.

Maybe a decade ago now, we went through a process called federal recognition, which we were granted in 2010. And as part of that, we had to show our historical relationship with the local jurisdiction. A large part of our ability to do that was due to cases called the seaweed cases.

The seaweed cases showcased a history where the Shinnecock Nation leased out seaweed lots in the Shinnecock and the Peconic Bay. Historically, we used seaweed for insulation for our homes to keep warm. We used it as medicine, and we used it as a fertilizer mixed with fish to grow our crops. These were mainly corn and bean and squash.

Mongabay: Why did people in your community decide to return to kelp farming now? 

Tela Troge: Kelp has an incredible ability to sequester carbon, which is one of the problems that we’re facing here with ocean acidification. But sugar kelp also thrives on nitrogen, which is perfect because there is an excess of nitrogen in the water.

We are farming in the Shinnecock Bay, adjacent to the land base of the Shinnecock Nation, called the Shinnecock Neck. We’re a peninsula separated by a barrier island to the Atlantic Ocean.

Eastern Long Island. Riverhead, Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Bay.

So, around the bay, you have the Shinnecock territory. You have a barrier island called Billionaire’s Row, which has $75 million estates. And then you have the Shinnecock Hills. The Shinnecock Hills were an area of land that were stolen from the Shinnecock Nation in 1859 by both the town of Southampton and the state of New York.

The Shinnecock people, especially Shinnecock women, have been fighting for the return of the hills since the day after it happened. In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of American Indian sovereignty and American Indian rights. The Shinnecock Nation petitioned the United States for the return of the Shinnecock Hills. The theft was in violation of a federal law, so it should’ve never happened. We asked the United States for help. Help never came.

And so, mansions started popping up all over the Shinnecock Hills. The area quickly became overdeveloped, and there was a complete lack of municipal sewer system planning.

These are mansions, so they have five, 10, 15 and even 25 bathrooms all seeping into the Shinnecock Bay, which the Shinnecock people depend on for food. Historically, since the last glacier melted, it’s been a source of abundant shellfish and fish.

With the overdevelopment and the lack of septic planning, everything has basically died. It’s an excess of nitrogen specifically, from the septic systems and fertilizer maintaining the lawns of the billionaires and the millionaires and the mansions.

But where you have these types of nitrates, you have food for sugar kelp. The sugar kelp really just thrives on the excess nitrogen. It’s really a win-win situation for kelp farmers.

Close-up of sugar kelp hanging on its growing lines. Image courtesy of Claudia Geib for Mongabay.

Mongabay: How have you noticed the impact of nitrogen pollution in the bay?

Tela Troge: Things have really changed in the Shinnecock Bay from when I was growing up. We had a path that went out from our house to Heady Creek, which is on the other side of the Shinnecock Peninsula from the Shinnecock Bay. And you could take a walk out there and see horseshoe crabs, scallops and all kinds of beautiful [animals].

Now that I’m a bit older, it’s really heartbreaking to find that those types of marine life are really struggling. So, I felt compelled to take action — especially action that asserts tribal sovereignty and protects my tribe’s right to the bay. [Also action that] educates our neighbors on the importance of clean water and water protection. We can’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to address the problem.

Mongabay: What is involved in creating a kelp farm?

Tela Troge: It’s not complicated, but it’s also a little complicated. It starts with going out and diving for the source tissue. And that’s become harder and harder in recent years because the water around Long Island is becoming warmer. So, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to locate wild-occurring sugar kelp. This season we got set back a number of weeks in our operations because it took five separate dives to find good source tissue.

Once we are able to have a successful dive, we bring the source material back and we release it into tubes. Each tube has a spool           [PVC pipes wrapped with twine]. The spools have about 200 feet [61 meters] of string on them and we released the source tissue into those spools. And then we wait two weeks.

Kelp hatchery tanks. Image courtesy of Matt Ballard.

It’s really nerve-racking, because all of this is happening microscopically, and we don’t know if we’re successful. We have to keep the conditions absolutely perfect. The water has to be kept at a certain temperature. They can’t be exposed to light, so we have to blacken out all of the windows.

After about two weeks, we can collect a sample and look under a microscope and hopefully we see what we want to see: [baby kelp spores, each a lumpy amber oval, settling and growing on the twine.]

After about five or six weeks, the spools are ready to go out into the bay. We have an anchoring system, about three-foot-tall [1 m] anchors, which we twist into the sandy bottom. Then, we run marine rope from anchor to anchor.

We have about eight lines in the bay right now, each line is a hundred feet. Once they are out into the bay, they are there for a couple of months, really — January, February, March, April, and May.

We really are attempting to create a marine habitat. And next season, we hope to incorporate oysters at the bottom of our sugar kelp farm.

Kelp hatchery tanks. Image courtesy of Matt Ballard.

Mongabay: Once the kelp is harvested, what do you plan to do with it?

Tela Troge: Sugar kelp is really amazing. There can be a lot of uses for it. It can be used as medicine, in pharmaceuticals. It can be used to make beauty products. It can be cultivated for food.

Unfortunately, here in the Shinnecock Bay, the water is so polluted that it’s not fit for human consumption or any of those uses.

So, our end product is a type of fertilizer slash soil amendment that we are going to sell to farms, institutions, golf courses, college campuses — really anyone who is cultivating any type of plants. The sugar kelp acts as just an incredible bio-stimulant.

Mongabay: You have this great partnership with the Sisters of St. Joseph. How did that relationship come about, and what have they provided?

Tela Troge: The Sisters of St. Joseph are a group of just incredible women. They are activists and they have a very strong land ethic.

They are committed to protecting the environment, whether it be the land or the water or the air that we breathe. And they have a retreat center in our Aboriginal territory, which they have been very gracious in sharing with us for sugar kelp farming or for any other needs that we have. We had our hatchery set up in one of the cabins that the sisters maintain. We had 18 spools in our initial hatchery, they were in four aquarium tanks. And the sisters provided everything from the electricity to the plumbing and from the water to the wastewater discharge. Really everything that we needed, the sisters were able to help provide to us.

The sisters are also launching a nationwide education series about the importance of religious groups taking important action, such as denouncing the doctrine of discovery, which has led to a lot of the theft of land from Indigenous people all around the world.

[They’re also discussing] restoring access that these religious organizations have to Indigenous land, as well as beginning the process of contemplating what the return of those lands to Indigenous stewardship looks like.

The front of the retreat center owned by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Hampton Bays, who leased space to the Shinnecock Kelp Farm for their kelp hatchery and to access growing lines in Shinnecock Bay. Image courtesy of Claudia Geib for Mongabay.

Mongabay: What sort of challenges or roadblocks have come up in your work so far?

Tela Troge: Sugar kelp is a cold-weather crop. We are out there in January, February and even March. It’s very cold. There are blizzards. We have to constantly tend our lines.

This season we had a really bad problem with slip gut [Ectocarpus spp.], a type of algae that just loves our kelp lines. It coats everything, and it just suffocates our sugar kelp, which we lovingly nurtured through our hatchery. And while we love all types of seaweed, we are specifically focused on cultivating sugar kelp. We have to do really constant line checks and make sure that our sugar kelp is what’s thriving.

Funding our project and funding the work that we’re doing is a huge challenge because, historically, so much has been taken from us. So, we are doing this with the very bare bones. We don’t have a boat, so we have to do shallow-water kelp farming, which includes putting on waders and going out into the water. It gets very cold if you get wet, and most likely you’re going to get wet. And it really limits the time that you can get out into the water.

Mongabay: What impact has this project had, so far, on the Shinnecock community?

Tela Troge: Traditionally and culturally, our nation is known as producing a type of bead called wampum. And the wampum shell, unfortunately, due to ocean acidification in recent years has become really brittle, really hard to make into beads. It’s really hard to continue this cultural legacy.

In 2019, we had started a climate adaptation and mitigation plan with some partners at the Peconic Estuary program. They had recommended that we surround our entire territory with kelp farms, specifically to address the problem of ocean acidification and the impact it’s having on the shellfish of the area.

Wampum shell. Image courtesy of Teal Troge.

So, the kelp farms should really have a huge impact on mitigating that process and returning the health of the shellfish. People are excited about it. It’s a return to our traditional roots.

Mongabay: Personally, how has your training as a lawyer factored into your work on this project?

Tela Troge: I became really fascinated by this project because I was so aware of the importance of the seaweed cases and our federal acknowledgement. I knew that we had a long history with seaweed and I knew its cultural significance.

But there’s this larger problem in this area with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. They have been targeting a lot of our people who are trying to engage in fishing, which we have Aboriginal rights to.

So, I felt that the act of cultivating seaweed and relying on our reserve treaty rights since 1640 was a really powerful way to assert our tribal sovereignty over the water.

Mongabay: How do Shinnecock traditions and ecological knowledge play into how you farm?

Tela Troge: It really goes back to this concept of reciprocity; Indigenous people know that if we take care of Mother Earth, that Mother Earth will then take care of us.

We’re constantly battling the threats of the climate crisis. We are a frontline coastal community, heavily impacted by overdevelopment. If you look across the bay, you can see Shinnecock territory. It’s the only place that’s really [industrially] undeveloped.

We have been taught by our elders how to survive here, often with very little resources. We’re taught how to think of the entire ecosystem anytime that we’re taking action. Additionally, we’re taught to think seven generations ahead.

Eastern Long Island. Riverhead, Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Bay. Image courtesy of Ali Wehada.

A lot of people around here take the water for granted. They’ll dump chemicals, or they’ll say, oh, climate change is something that is going to affect us in 50 years, I’m not going to change my actions now. But we’re always taught to think ahead and think of those seven generations. It’s really a lot of what drives us in educating and sharing our message, and hopefully getting others engaged in taking action to protect the water for [future] generations.

Mongabay: Looking ahead, what do you hope this farm will become?

Tela Troge: We hope to see wide-scale kelp farming. We can’t do this alone. We are a collective of six intergenerational Indigenous women, and we’re doing our part, but we need to build a huge network — a huge collective of kelp farmers.

Sugar kelp farming has kind of been stunted in the state of New York. Just in the beginning of this year, Governor [Kathy] Hochul signed legislation legalizing the cultivation of sugar kelp in this area. But we have a lot of bureaucratic red tape that places like Maine or Connecticut, which have thriving seaweed industries, don’t have.

We need to get kelp into every single body of water. We need to meaningfully mitigate a lot of the damage that is happening, and we’ll only be able to do that if we can get as much kelp into the water as possible. We have a lot of carbon to sequester and we have a whole lot of excess nitrates that we need to remove.

Additionally, we need to stop the cycle of chemical fertilizers seeping into the water and improve our septic systems. For this, the return of land to Indigenous people is really key.

We’re hoping that because of our rights, our experience and our traditional ecological knowledge, that we can be a little bit ahead of the game and help provide seedlings to those who are interested — once the legislation catches up with the interests of those looking to clean up the water.

 

Banner image: Sugar kelp hanging on its growing lines. Image courtesy of Claudia Geib for Mongabay.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at Indigenous peoples’ long relationship with, and stewardship of, marine environments through two stories of aquaculture practice in New Zealand and Canada.

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