Like mushrooms, seaweeds aren’t technically plants or animals yet share some qualities with both. Some have an almost meaty chew. Depending on the type, they can be rich in iodine, protein, trace minerals, omega-3 oils, and vitamins. Some varieties offer the best vegan sources of B12. One study estimated a “marine garden” the size of Washington state could provide enough protein to feed earth’s population, all while cleaning pollutants.
The Puget Sound has one of the most diverse seaweed floras on earth, with over 600 species. “We have natural kelp forests that provide vital habitat for ocean life, like salmon and rockfish, and act as carbon sinks. Yet scan the menu at most Seattle restaurants beating the drum of Northwest bounty, and you’ll find very little kelp,” she said.
To understand how foundational seaweeds are to humans one needs to go way back, more than a billion years. After an ice age, things thawed. Then a photosynthesizing bacterium knit together with an organism called a eukaryote. They formed microalgae, which much later mutated into macroalgae, or seaweeds. Some researchers argue that seaweeds’ iodine and omega-3 oils were key in Homo sapien’s development.
For thousands of years, for people all over, seaweed remained vital. The Pacific Coast of the Americas is known as the “kelp highway” for the migration brought on by its bounty. Northwest tribes deployed seaweeds variously: as food, medicine, fertilizer, and even as a kind of lid to steam open mussels and clams on hot rocks. The Makah Tribe would dry bull kelp into fishing line and nets.
Then came the European invaders. What we now recognize as American food — our wheat and beef — overshadowed what naturally grows here. Native diets underwent a “forced assimilation,” says Lisa Barrell, who manages the traditional foods project for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, on the Olympic Peninsula. The tribe long gathered and ate seaweeds. “Like so many other things, we just stopped.”
Bren Smith is U.S. kelp cultivation’s bellwether. The subject of many recent seaweed articles, he founded GreenWave, an East Coast nonprofit focused on training regenerative ocean farmers.
Kelp is a traditional food for tribes all along the West Coast. And Indigenous interest in farming is growing. Last year, Dune Lankard — an Eyak Athabaskan Native and longtime activist from Cordova, Alaska – partnered with Bren Smith and GreenWave to make sure that Indigenous concerns are represented in Alaska’s blooming industry.
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