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Harvesting wild seaweed is one California woman’s ‘labour of love’

Julie Drucker, who harvests wild seaweeds in Mendocino, Calif.

Julie Drucker got her taste for wild seaweed in 2002, when a friend added strands of squiggly black marine algae to a plate of scrambled eggs. The briny flavour drew the San Fransisco resident to the waters of Mendocino, Calif., where she now sells eight varieties under the label Yemaya (mother of the sea), at YemayaSeaweed.net.

Drucker is one of a growing number of wetsuited aficionados who are reviving the art of wild seaweed harvesting on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Unlike industry titans such as Acadia Seaplants of Nova Scotia – which farms seaweed in giant land-based tanks – producers such as Drucker sell their wares in small batches online and focus on teaching others how to identify seaweed in their natural habitat.

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Harvesting wild seaweed is gruelling work, said Drucker, 52, who scrambles down steep cliffs to gather about 300 pounds of seaweed each year, including nori, sea palm, wakame and kombu.

On the line with The Globe and Mail, Drucker explained how she got hooked on foraging in the tide pools.

How did you learn about edible seaweed?

After I moved to Mendocino, I started working with this man who knew how to harvest them. My first season, all I would do was slip and fall and get up laughing. Then I'd look at the seaweed and think, "They all look the same – how can you tell them apart?" You just have to be with them, over and over again.

You taste the seaweed, put it through your fingers, feel the texture, smell it. Then, it's like, "How could I ever mistake sea palm for kombu?" They're completely different.

When is the best time to harvest seaweed?

There is a maturation cycle, as with plants. The Pomo tribes of Northern California always got the nori [seaweed] in April or May, before the snails got it, and they got the sea palm in July and August. When there is a new moon, or a full moon, the tide recedes up to five feet more. That's called a minus tide and that's when I can harvest the seaweed – otherwise it's covered by water.

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What kind of equipment do you use?

I wear a wetsuit and booties because I'm walking on these shelves filled with mussels and sharp rocks. I use a small grape harvesting knife with a round blade that's perfect for grabbing the blades of the seaweed. I use net bags that let the water drip down when the seaweed is inside. Usually my bags are 15 pounds filled. I take them up the cliff and lay them on a tarp in a wheelbarrow. I have a small company, so I don't harvest more than about 75 pounds a day, which comes out to 25 pounds dried. I have friends who help.

What makes harvesting wild seaweed sustainable?

It's more than sustainable. The way we do it, we're actually increasing the species. If you harvest sea palm at a certain time in the spring, for example, it will create two more harvests because you're actually spreading spores. You only cut the very tips, not the holdfast [the root-like anchor]. And you don't ever touch the reproductive organs.

How do you know the seaweed is safe to eat?

Between Vancouver and Monterey [Calif.], we have the largest area of brown seaweeds of anywhere in the world – over 150 species.

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None are poisonous. The waters around Mendocino are considered pristine because there is no industry or farming with pesticides that run off. There is another [local] seaweed company that does testing every year, so we also ride on that.

Have you ever considered farming seaweed to increase your yield?

I'm not drawn to it. With farming, how do you create an entire tidal zone? When you're not taking it from the wild, you're losing something from its properties medicinally. Harvesting wild seaweed is exhausting and low-profit. I have to be up at 4 in the morning, gather the seaweed and then drive an hour and a half inland to lay it out in the full sun for the next eight to 10 hours. Then I have to bring it into a closed space because it can't be in moisture. I am limited to 24 tables of drying space, so I can't harvest enough to make it a full-time job. It's a labour of love.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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