Seaweed

by Brie Sherow

There are certain stereotypes about Maine that you come to expect. Men have beards, wear flannel, and live in cabins in the middle of the woods. Micah Woodcock, owner and primary sea vegetable harvester at Atlantic Holdfast, doesn’t disappoint. Especially with his wry sense of humour. “The Canadian tourists on the dock were grilling me about the seaweeds, asking me ‘what’s under the tarp on the boat?’ I told them I export most of the sea vegetables that I harvest to intergalactic markets. ‘Ya know, space stations, and other planets

Illustration: Lily Paris West

Inside the wood cabin, there’s a grid of clipboards with ocean-related charts hanging on the wall. Exposed kitchen shelving contains mason jars of various sizes full of spices and dried foods, surrounding a kitchen island with even more jars waiting to be filled. There are nautical maps everywhere. I notice a hand drawn card in crayon that says ‘thanks for the seaweed.’

The cabin in the woods is Micah’s home for part of the year. During the harvesting season Micah spends most of his time on a small island miles offshore from Stonington. His work is a hybrid of fishing, foraging, and farming; and the sea vegetables he searches for grow in exposed areas with heavy surf.

He describes his work as ‘tending the wild’– respecting local ecosystems and the plants that naturally thrive, as opposed to traditional farming which he describes as clearing a blank slate and planting crops with commercial value, even when they’re not suited to the environment.

During one of his first jobs, on a vegetable farm, he realised that the weeds they were removing were often edible and medicinal plants so he started learning their history and uses. He was amazed to learn that one of the most hated weeds in the Hudson Valley was packaged and sold online because it’s an ingredient in traditional Bolivian cuisine. “In Western cultures we’re surrounded by plants that we don’t eat but that are valued in other places. We’ve lost the knowledge because we have it too easy, we don’t need to know how to make use of them to survive.”

Most maritime cultures have a history of seaweed consumption. Micah tells me that the oldest archaeological evidence comes from Chile. “The site was ninety kilometres inland and dated 14,000 years ago, remnants of many varieties of seaweed were found on cooking tools.” There’s 12th century Icelandic poetry that references monks harvesting dulse. It’s part of the culture in Brittany, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Southeast Asia. Japan makes some of the best seaweed products, and it’s the cuisine that most westerners know, but China accounts for the majority of Asia’s cultured seaweed production. Chinese production came about to address iodine and mineral deficiencies from inland populations. “Iodine regulates your metabolism, every creature with a backbone needs it and seaweed is the best dietary source of it.”

Despite its nutritional value and abundance, Micah says that most Americans haven’t grown up incorporating seaweed into their diet. Across the border in Canada, there’s a history of Dulse as a popular snack. ‘There’s one island off of New Brunswick where everyone eats it, you can buy it at the gas station, you can buy it at the ferry, people just snack on it all day.’

Larger kelp is great for stocks, which is a foundational part of Japanese cooking. The sodium glutamate is a flavour enhancer, it is umami. Wild varieties are considered superior for stocks, and premium kelp can be aged for years so that the bitter compounds break down and it becomes sweeter. Some kelp is aged for up to ten years; its flavour differs depending on the age, how it’s dried, and the time of year it’s harvested. As water temperature rises and falls with the seasons, there are different vitamins, minerals, and flavours.

Not so long ago “the only people in America interested in seaweed were health food nuts.” The sushi boom normalised the idea of eating seaweed, “even though nori sheets are the fishiest tasting of the seaweeds.” Now the work is to ‘de-sushify’ seaweed. People are interested in it and open to it, but they still don’t know what to do with it. Seaweed companies work with restaurants, health-food stores, and anyone making value added products. A lot of the marketing is about making it more accessible. Micah sells to one woman down the coast in Portland who is making ‘tor-sea-as,’ traditional corn tortillas with the addition of seaweed flakes. A local deli makes a seaweed salad. He sells to wholesalers, farmers markets, food fairs.

Cooking classes help the general public become more familiar with how to use different varieties of seaweed. Sugar Kelp is a big, wide strip that is very mild, and can be used similarly to a noodle. Sliced thinly it can be used in stir-fry, or thicker slices can be used like lasagna. Wakame, winged kelp, and alaria are like a long-leafed salad. Dulse can be coated with oil and toasted like nori. Carageen is the Gaelic name for Irish Moss, which is gel-like and used as a thickening agent. Bladderwrack has a bulb area at the end of the fronds that has a gel inside that is used medicinally; similar to aloe, it’s good for cuts and scrapes.

The offshore sea vegetables that Micah and others harvest for edible use comprise only ten percent of commercial seaweed harvested in Maine. The other ninety percent is rockweed, used for animal feed and fertiliser. It grows along the shore and is easily accessible, so more of it is being removed. However, while kelp can grow six or seven inches in a day, rockweed may take a year to grow the same amount. There’s a lot of media coverage about seaweed, but there’s often no distinction between coastal rockweed, sea vegetables, or aquaculture, and each of those fisheries are facing different issues and need their own management strategies.

There’s a lot of interest in aquaculture, but Micah says that the seaweed is more susceptible to bio-fouling. Aquaculture sites in calmer areas may be easier to manage, but the seaweed can’t thrive. The seaweed grows on ropes suspended seven feet below the water on a grid of moorings and longlines. It gets crowded, and there are concerns about disease pressure when creating large monocultures. “You have more control, which is what everyone wants, but if you don’t thin it out it’s not going to grow very well.” It will be wider, weaker, tear in your hands, “I would never harvest that stuff.”

Edible varieties thrive in places where there’s active surf, and Micah’s harvesting ground starts miles out from shore. The best edible seaweed is in the roughest areas; where the tides are bigger, there’s more nutrient flow. In calmer waters, including aquaculture beds, the seaweed often suffers from bio-fouling– micro organisms like zooplankton and epiphytes that grow on the seaweed. Climate change is making the bio-fouling heavier. In rougher waters the creatures can’t attach, and especially in rough surf, there’s more oxygen in the water and more upwelling. “It’s a smaller scale replica of the wider ocean, the most fertile fishing grounds are often around ledges or banks close to deep canyons where there are upwellings of phytoplankton from deeper waters to the surface. That’s where it’s all happening.”

The seven different species that Micah harvests each grow in unique environments, and the abundance of each variety in each location varies year to year. He adjusts his management style and crop rotations for different varieties. He likens Irish Moss and Dulse to harvesting salad greens, trimming them encourages growth and they grow back quickly. Sugar Kelp is like the bamboo of the sea, it starts off microscopic but can grow up to a foot a week in the spring. The adults are smooth in the centre with ruffled edges, and are usually between ten to fifteen feet although they can be longer.

The harvesting and drying takes place on an offshore island, about ten miles from shore. Outdoor racks are ideal, but depending on the weather he may use a barn equipped with fans and heating. Dulse, Nori, and Irish Moss are spread out on nets and can dry in a day. For larger kelps it can take up to thirty-six hours inside with fans and heat.

Micah worries about the boom and bust cycles he’s seen in other fisheries. There is concern that the industry will grow, and people with no sense of stewardship or long-term investment will ruin the sustainability. “In seaweed you’re not chasing it, you know where it is, it’s right where you left it.” The harvest areas are large because that’s the area it takes to sustainably manage the resource.

Historically, the work is too difficult for many people, which has made it sustainable for those willing to put in the work. Seaweed harvesting is different to most fisheries in Maine because it is a vertically integrated industry. Fishermen working with lobster or clams typically sell their catch at the end of the day, it’s not about processes or marketing the catch. “There’s no market for wet seaweed, and kelp is ninety percent water. You have to harvest it, dry it, package it, maybe make some value-added products too. There are five well-established wild harvesting companies, and four of the five are owner-operated by the primary harvester. You have to really be dedicated to get into it.”

Fishing is defined as ‘the harvesting of marine organisms,’ so the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) classifies seaweed harvesting as a fishery. The state requires harvesters to have a license and report how much of each species is collected in each location, and whether the harvesting method is by hand, knife, or rake. The state doesn’t assign sectors, and as is the case for a lot of fisheries in Maine, it’s up to the harvesters to decide who is operating where. It’s a small industry where people know each other. Micah apprenticed from Larch Hanson of Maine Seaweed Company, who has been harvesting for over forty years. “I liked the work, so I started setting down roots in the area and mapping out places where I could be harvesting. My harvesting takes place in one-hundred fifty square miles of ocean with nobody else present. But from here to the Canadian border, there’s someone harvesting those seaweed beds, and I know who those people are and who is harvesting where.”

Lobstering has a long and significant history in Maine, with some families fishing the same territory for hundreds of years. In lobstering, a license is attached to a certain zone and over fifty percent of the licensee’s traps have to be within that zone. Within the zones, the states don’t tell people where to set their traps. It is managed by traditions and family lineages, a long-standing and informal territoriality and retribution among fisherman, who Micah tells me have been known to take matters into their own hands if someone oversteps a boundary. “Bureaucracies can create frameworks for managing fisheries, but they can’t be everywhere on the water enforcing them at all times. You have to have community level agreements, which can be fluid and change over time, determined on the water with people who know each other and the territory.” Not every detail can or should be managed from the top down.

Seaweed harvesting in Maine touches on issues of how to best manage a common resource. In America, people think of ownership as either public or private. Owners think they can do whatever they want with private property, regardless of environmental protections that are in place, whereas public resources are viewed as something that everyone can have as much as they want of it until it’s gone. “The corporate resource extraction model is to privatise the profits and socialise the costs. We’re good at evaluating financial capital, and that’s the metric we use to measure individual and community success.” He cites the tourism industry in Maine, which brings financial capital, even while the vacation home real estate economy makes it more difficult for locals to afford the higher prices. When communities are remade to serve tourists at the expense of local residents’ quality of life, this undermines the foundation of the regional culture. “I’m interested in a more holistic value of what’s in a place,” Micah says. He doesn’t own any of the seaweed beds he works on, and has no proprietary legal right to them, but he manages his grounds and his business in a way that respects the environment and culture.

“We have a lot to lose. This is a public resource, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all where everyone can have as much as they want until it’s gone. You have to come up with agreements about how it’s going to be stewarded, and then you can start having interesting conversations about ownership, community, and social investment.”