Snipping Seaweed for nutrition and profit

🕔Apr 07, 2011

In Southeast Alaska where Dolly Garza grew up, communities compete every two years at a Juneau-based celebration for the title of best black seaweed. Entrants submit a gallon bag of the dried crinkly delicacy and judges pick out five pieces to test, assessing the flavour and texture of the carefully prepared delicacy.

Picking seaweed is easy to do, and Garza wishes more people would gather the nutritious and delicious resource, but finding this particular form of marine algae—the one known to science as Porphyra, to the English-speaking world as laver, to the Japanese as nori, and to the Skidegate Haida as sgyuu—is not so simple.

“Porphyra is very picky. It has a six-week growing season (in early spring), and if you miss it you’ve missed it for the whole year. If you’re too early the seaweed will be short and hard to pick, and hard on your knuckles; if you are too late it may be encrusted with small snails and dying back, and it’s not as tasty,” says Garza, who is of both Haida and Tlingit descent and now makes her home in Skidegate.

Porphyra grows on rocks where there is abundant tidal wash, usually only on the outer coastlines. When you do find the right patch, she says, you can gather enough for a year in half an hour.

It’s this scarce abundance that’s made black seaweed such a highly prized trade item among coastal people. And competition, contest or not, runs high. People in Kake, Alaska may think they have the best, but those in Sitka don’t agree. What people do agree on is how delicious and nutritious black seaweed is.

Louis Druehl, who wrote, Pacific Seaweeds: A Guide to Common Seaweeds of the West Coast, says that “Nori (Porphyra) is probably one of the healthiest foods on our planet…” It’s high in protein (25–35% of its dry weight) and the Vitamin C content is said to be 1.5 times that of oranges—definitely a food to get excited about.

But what amazes Garza is how many other vitamin- and mineral-packed seaweeds people are stepping over to get to the black seaweed prize.

Porphyra may be easy to harvest (sadly not so much on southern Haida Gwaii where a smaller, more knuckle-scraping species of Porphyra grows—Garza’s uncles in Craig Alaska wouldn’t even bother with it, she says, chuckling), but it also takes the most work to prepare. There are several steps: the harvest must be spread on a sheet in the sun with a breeze blowing, and each piece must be uncurled and turned over throughout the day. It can take 12 to 48 hours to complete the drying process. Then it is roasted in an oven at 175 degrees for 20 minutes.

In contrast, big beautiful brown kelps can be harvested in five minutes, hung on a clothesline and not thought of again until they are dry. Bull kelp and popweed can be harvested at any time of year, she says, and on any tide. You just need the right wind to blow it up on the beach and it’s there ready for inclusion in soups or stir-frys.

Bull kelp blades (the leaf-like part of the algae), if harvested and dried in the spring, have a mildly sweet buttery taste. It’s this she serves to those who’re wary of slimy seaweeds. But the stipe is good to eat too, and is often used fresh-cut in canning for pickles, chutney, mincemeat and more.

Seaweed school
Although she grew up gathering seaweed, Garza’s enthusiasm deepened when she spent several years as an educator with the University of Alaska’s Sea Grant program doing workshops up and down the coast. When she got turned on to the different, abundant seaweeds in the north Pacific waters, she didn’t imagine she’d spend this much time teaching native communities about gathering wild edibles. But she was amazed at the number of young moms and even older men who would show up at workshops.

“So much of that information was put aside,” she says. She remembers seeking local knowledge-holders for material for her lessons, but with the exception of Porphyra she often ended up talking with local forest service employees instead. “I had to spend a lot of time looking at books and saying, ‘Okay, I can try that one.’”

Often mistaken for a plant, seaweed is actually an algae, able to absorb water and nutrients through all tissues, instead of the complicated system of roots, tissues and leaves that plants use.

She wonders if some kind of a stigma around seaweed exists; perhaps it’s considered poor-people’s food and that’s what stops people from taking advantage of the fabulous local nourishment. Fishermen curse the floating kelp if it gets stuck in their propellers, but they rarely whack off a few blades to bring home for food when they’re out on a halibut or salmon run, she says.

Interest has grown in her workshops in southeast Alaska, and now it’s growing on Haida Gwaii. Those interested in sustainable food are especially keen.

Commercial kelp
Filmmaker Dafne Romero of Queen Charlotte is another islander who’s taken a passionate interest in the wild edible. One morning she woke to the realization that with no film industry on the islands, she’d have to find another way to make a living. Already fascinated by the intersection of land and water, she looked up from Druehl’s seaweed guide and out to the water and realized that a major opportunity was floating past.

“I can do this,” she decided.

After working through a self-employment program and getting the proper approvals from not only the provincial government but the Haida as well, Romero started hand-harvesting kelp. She goes out in her small boat with a pair of scissors and a tote and snips the blades, making sure to leave the small gas-filled bladders intact (otherwise the plant would sink). To date, her company North Pacific Kelp Products has focused on Macrocysitis pyrifera, otherwise known as giant kelp, one of the fastest-growing seaweeds worldwide. She makes soaps and a product she calls seaweed lasagne (dried blades of Macrocystis used instead of noodles in a tasty dish). She also sells seaweed to a company on Vancouver Island for use as seaweed wraps and other spa beauty products. In the future she’d like to provide seaweed crushed into powder as fertilizer for farmers on the islands and feed for cattle.

Romero has a licence to harvest seaweed in Haida Gwaii waters through the provincial Ministry of Agriculture. She’s allowed to harvest 20 percent of the kelp in the area but in reality she says she takes less than one percent of the Macrocystis. With her licence she could collect other kinds as well but with all the work of developing products and markets for each type, she’s keeping things small for now. “One kind is one world. It’s big enough,” she says.

And while harvesting a local product can be touted as eco-friendly and sustainable, she is aware that she still relies on things from off-island, like packaging and the glycerine she uses in her soaps, to make her business work.

“Sustainability is an illusion, but we will move toward that. In reality we will never be that.”

She’s also conscious of the impacts of commercialization of this wild ocean resource. For example, for a few weeks in spring, the best time for harvesting seaweed, the herring also spawn. When this spawn collects on kelp, it becomes a Haida delicacy, known as k’aaw. Romero stops collecting kelp for her business during that time, respecting the value of this other resource.

She is also taking time out this year to really study the ecology of the life form she’s relying on for her new vocation. She’s already been scuba diving in order to better understand how seaweed grows. She’s seen first-hand how many other little creatures like snails and fish rely on the marine forest.

“The marine ecosystem is absolutely connected to the earth ecosystem,” she says. “It pays my bills, but that is not the only incentive I have. It’s the fascination I have of being connected with them.”

For more information:
Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska, by Dolly Garza
Pacific Seaweeds: A Guide to Common Seaweeds of the West Coast by Louis Druehl

A lot of bull

Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) is a separate species from giant kelp. It has long been important to coastal First Nations. According to Nancy Turner’s Plants of Haida Gwaii, the dried and cured hollow bulbs of bull kelp were used as storage vessels for grease and fish-oil. Canoes were anchored to kelp plants offshore on fishing or hunting expeditions, and long thin solid sections were used for fishing line and rope. Bull kelp is also edible.