The Shinnecock Kelp Farmers Are Healing Our Waterways

Shinnecock Kelp Farmers is a multi-generational collective of six female members of the Shinnecock Nation who are cultivating seaweed—a traditional food and medicine of their people—to once again work in partnership with the land, sea and sky to provide sustenance, rebalance the nitrogen and carbon levels in the bay, and create new green jobs for the next seven generations and beyond.

The loon bobs and cries. The osprey peeps and plunges. The cormorant skims the air in silence. And two women, whose ancestors started wading in these same waters more than 10,000 years ago, step waist deep into the cold tide, gently hand-tending to long lines of a traditional source of sustenance that they are cultivating in a non-traditional way.

In this place, Shinnecock Bay, where briny air meets salty water meets sandy rocky shore, all things are connected, and there is a sense of past inhabiting present, of a meeting place for spirit energy and solid, breathing beings, a quiet vibrating resonance of what was and what could be. 

The topography, 9,000 or so acres of intertidal flats, salt marshes and aquatic life, might not have been exactly the shape of what we see today; the inlets around the southern barrier islands are ever shifting and changing, but the Shinnecock people who inhabited the area adapted and found abundance. 

In 1640, the Europeans came and gradual change accelerated, and land became a thing one could possess, build mansions on and kick others off of. The Shinnecock’s expansive lifestyle on the edges of land, sea, and sky, was over. And the abundance of nature began to diminish under the pressures of more people imposing their will on the landscape and on the sea. Rampant development spiked in the 1970s and diminished even further the resources the Shinnecock counted on. 

Today, Waban Tarrant and her cousin, Danielle Hopson Begun, and four more relatives, who all grew up and—save one—still live on the 800 acre Shinnecock Nation Territory, are wading back into the waters in a project that they hope will contribute to the restoration of this bay where their ancestors thrived. 


A mural by Shinnecock artist Denise “Weetahmoe” Silva-Dennis titled, “Wunne Ohke, The Return to Good Ground,” as part of Parrish Art Museum’s Parrish Road Show, 2022.

Shinnecock Kelp Farmers is a multi-generational collective of six female members of the Shinnecock Nation who are cultivating seaweed—a traditional food and medicine of their people—to once again work in partnership with the land, sea and sky to provide sustenance, rebalance the nitrogen and carbon levels in the bay, and create new green jobs for the next seven generations and beyond.

“We have always collected seaweed that naturally occurs for food, medicine, clambakes, pest control, insulation, soil amendments,” says Danielle Hopson Begun, crunching and squishing across the shell strewn beach behind the Sisters of St. Joseph retreat house in Hampton Bays that is the center of a lot of the operation. “We deliberately collected it, but we never deliberately cultivated it.”

A 2019 documentary that featured tribal activist Rebecca (Becky) Genia fighting for the return of tribal lands and a call from an organization called Greenwave, whose mission is to spread regenerative ocean farming around the world, changed all that. In the documentary, Genia wades out into the bay with her great grandchildren for shellfish, initiating them into a food tradition that she learned from her own great-grandfather in those very waters. 

“Toby (Sheppard Bloch) had seen the documentary, Conscience Point, and said it changed his life and he started talking to us about sugar kelp,” Danielle Hopson Begun explains. Sheppard Bloch, director of infrastructure for Greenwave, called tribal lawyer Tela Troge, and Troge contacted her mother and other female relatives—they are all connected via a great-great grandfather—and Shinnecock Kelp Farmers was born as an independent entity from the Shinnecock Nation. Becky Genia is also one of the six.

The idea is to farm sugar kelp, a seaweed with superpowers, that does not just feed people, but also sequesters harmful carbon and nitrogen from the seawater, making the bay a better place for fish, shellfish, birds and people.

Danielle Hopson Begun and Waban Tarrant of Shinnecock Kelp Farmers.

“It feels like we are helping Mother Nature along,” says Hopson Begun, as she lifts one of four 100 foot lines out of the water and removes slimy green slip gut (Ectocarpus) from the baby kelp beginning to extend out. “We’re not extracting, we’re not overproducing; you don’t have to feed the kelp or add anything to the water. We are just using the resources gently.”

The resources start with seed. Waban Tarrant is the hatching technician and in the hatchery at the retreat house that they put up and take apart each season, she explains how, around September, the women prepare spools of line to put in the six tanks, fill with seawater, prepare source tissue, keep at a constant temperature of 50°F, aerate, check the spores for activity under the microscope, then add the spores. Then, they wait.

“They settle onto the strings, and then attach,” she says. “It takes two weeks before you see anything happening. Then you start to see little yellow circles on the spools. After five or six weeks they are ready to go out; they look like tiny blades of grass.”

The babies go out to the bay, where anchors have been prepared for the lines to be unspooled and moored, a heavy job that requires a lot of volunteer muscle to get from the hatchery down two levels of wooden stairs, onto the beach and 200 or so yards out. 

And then they maintain, checking the lines, cleaning off the slip gut for five cold winter months until the kelp strands reach up to 12 feet in length and are ready to be harvested, eaten fresh or dried for a number of uses. 

An example of “false kelp” pulled from the line at Shinnecock Kelp Farmers.

“It potentially has a commercial value,” Hopson Begun says of their incubator project that produced around 150 pounds last year and has other locations. “But we focus on the ecological benefit. The kelp eats the carbon and nitrogen; it cleans our water so that we can maintain our lifestyle.

“It is important as a soil amendment in traditional agriculture. I wouldn’t use it for a clambake; it’s too labor intensive—I would use the rockweed for that. I would prefer to eat the kelp straight out of the water, when it is young and delicate, but we also eat it dried. That’s just us. Eventually we would like to be able to sell it for consumption, but we don’t have all the testing back yet.”

Then there is the acidification of the seawater due to climate change; kelp assists in that too. “The acidification makes the shell of clams and oysters brittle,” Hopson Begun says. “But shellfish grown in the presence of kelp is less brittle, healthier.”

The shellfish have always been a primary source of protein for the Shinnecock reservation, where about 60 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line according to the 2010 census. The collapse of the shellfish fishery in the bays of eastern Long Island that started in earnest in the 1970s and was complete by 2011 has been devastating to the Shinnecock’s traditional foodways and their food security.

The bay has been undergoing restoration from many different camps and there has been a lot of success in bringing back species that had disappeared from these waters. If this kelp farming can be expanded, it could assist in restoring the shellfish the Shinnecock need for their diet and cultural traditions. It could also provide jobs in an independent industry. 

Shinnecock Kelp Farmers may have Shinnecock roots, but the initiative itself is separate from the Nation, as the women—themselves social workers, lawyers and human resource professionals—repeat over and over. 

“We are just six women who saw a space for us to take action,” Hopson Begun says. “We want to be clear about that. The liability is to us, not the Nation. Because it is just the six of us, we can be more nimble. We are not eligible for federal funds like the Nation, but we had a very nice grant from the Nature Conservancy to keep us going this winter.” They credit Greenwaves for providing the initial know-how and the Sisters of St. Joseph for their material support as well as other local partners interested in cleaning up the bay. They exercise rights to use the land and waterways from a 1640s treaty that reserved those rights.

The story of development tells itself in a look around the bay. The view from the water is dotted with multi-million dollar mansions, built without sewer infrastructure or strict—if any—regulation on solid waste. 

Hopson Begun points to a series of large homes. “That’s Shinnecock Hills. It was stolen from us in the 1850s, which is not that long ago,” she says. “They never had the septic systems. Then there was the mass exodus during COVID where people came out to their summerhouses and stayed. There’s that runoff into the water and it’s still going on. New construction has to have new septic tanks but it is very expensive.”

As the tide rises and line maintenance has to end for the day, Danielle Hopson Begun reflects on how it feels to be farming in her ancestral waters, doing the work of restoration and renewal.

There is one stretch of beachfront across the water, undeveloped, lined thickly with trees. Pristine. Like a testament to a time before, or an accusation, or a sandy strip of hope. 

“That’s the reservation,” says Waban Tarrant. “That’s where we live.

As the tide rises and line maintenance has to end for the day, Danielle Hopson Begun reflects on how it feels to be farming in her ancestral waters, doing the work of restoration and renewal.

“Being out here, it’s better than natural,” she says. “It’s connectedness. With regard to the development, for all of my life it’s been here, but it hasn’t always been as bad as it is now. I always think of the people who lived here before, who were really hurting from racism and how devastating it is. I can’t put words to it, but it’s an ache, an ache that needs to be packaged up in order to survive.”

We know that kelp can package up nitrogen and CO2 and heal waters that have been degraded for generations. Perhaps it can also heal the wounds carried in the heart over generations. Shinnecock Kelp Farmers may be showing the rest of us how. 


For more information on Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, please visit



Why Kelp Farming Is an Urgent Need

Shinnecock Kelp Farmers have become citizen scientists in their quest to restore their ancestral waters. They have to be. It’s complicated.

Mike Doall, Associate Director for Shellfish Restoration and Aquaculture at Stony Brook University, who has been deeply engaged in restoration of the southern bays of Long Island for decades, says kelp farms can play an important role in the restoration of our waters. 

“Seaweed is regenerative because it extracts nutrients from the water—like in photosynthesis—by taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen,” he says. “One of the primary water quality issues is too much nitrogen in the bays. That fuels uncontrolled blooms of phytoplankton, which we know as brown tides and red tides.

He gives an example. “When brown tide happens, there are a lot of negative effects on the ecosystem. It makes the water very cloudy and reduces sunlight to the bottom. The algae sucks up nutrients and then dies and goes to the bottom and the decomposition creates hypoxia, not enough oxygen, or anoxia—no oxygen, a dead zone. So those massive fishkills or general unpleasantness or toxicity that we hear about can be a result of the excess nutrients; on Long Island primarily excess nitrogen caused by septic system and cesspool run-off and excess fertilizer that leaches into the groundwater and winds up in our bays and estuaries.”

Farming seaweed, which has been done in Asia for centuries, can help extract the excess nitrogen from the water and make it something good to eat or amend the soil. Doall calls it nutrient bio extraction.

Similarly, seaweed, being plant life, “can be part of the solution to climate change” because it—like trees—can help reduce carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, which Doall says also accumulates in water and leads to ocean acidification. “When you grow seaweed it raises the pH back up in a localized area; so shellfish grown with seaweed are strong. The calcium carbonate of their shell doesn’t dissolve so readily. We call it the halo effect.”

In short, Doall says that seaweed farming like the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers are practicing can and should be a part of action plans to restore the bays of Long Island.