BC’s fastest-growing forest is under the sea
H aute had the pleasure of a conversation with one of the pioneers of BC’s seaweed harvesting community, the marine biologist Amanda Swinimer of Dakini Tidal Wilds. Her sustainable resource is becoming increasingly popular not just as a health supplement but also as an ingredient in fine dining, gin and beer! We took a deep dive with Amanda into the kelp forest which sequesters 20 times more CO2 than its land-based cousins.
Can you give us a Biology 101 on seaweed? Are they plants?
Seaweeds are very ancient and in fact belong to a group of organisms called Algae. The single-celled algae have been on Earth for over a billion years. It’s theorized that all life evolved from an algae-like oceanic ancestor.
So we’re all descended from seaweed …
No. Technically, seaweeds are macroalgae and are descendants of the original algae. There are three main types, the browns, the reds and the greens. The reds and greens are in the plant kingdom but are much more ancient than land plants. The brown seaweeds are in the kingdom Chromista — so evolutionarily speaking they are totally unrelated to plants.
Does their ancient origin make them good for us, since we’re all one big family?
They’ve just evolved over time to survive so many different events. This has given them compounds that are unique in nature, just not found anywhere else. Scientists are finding some pretty amazing health benefits. For example, some seaweeds are very good at preventing protein misfolding because they are subjected to freezing and thawing in a single tidal cycle. Protein misfolding is indicated in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — so the way seaweeds protect themselves is being translated into being able to protect humans from some of the chronic disease associated with aging and from environmental toxins.
Where is seaweed starting to appear that’s surprising you?
When I started 20 years ago, seaweed was a fringe health food. Now I’m selling my premium-quality, hand-harvested, gently dried seaweed to a lot of the top restaurants in Victoria, Vancouver and the wineries in the Okanagan. Sheringham Distillery are flavouring their gin and aquavit with my winged kelp, and Gose-style beers from breweries like Whistle Buoy have my kelp in them.
Aside from fine dining and brewpubs, why would you recommend seaweed?
There’s a much wider awareness of the health benefits. It really came into the limelight after Fukushima — its ability to cleanse toxins and radioactive isotopes from tissues. It’s the most concentrated source of minerals on the planet, all the vitamins …
What’s your favourite seaweed and your go-to recipe?
For me, having access to a variety of different seaweeds is key. In my pantry I’ll have bull kelp, winged kelp, nori, dulse and sea lettuce. My seaweed is always sold dried. That’s the best way to preserve it because seaweeds are used to being dried out.
To get the health benefits you can’t go wrong with seaweed flakes and sprinkle them over your food as a seasoning. A really good way to start is to put it into soups — winged kelp or wakame — cut it up in small pieces because it will expand by 5 times in your soup! It’s an intense umami flavour and adds a salty briney-ness into the broth.
How sustainable is seaweed? If we eat too much of it, will we run out?
The BC regulations around wild harvest make it incredibly sustainable. It has to be done by hand and it has to be done in a place where it will grow back. It essentially is like going out and cutting your grass. Bull kelp can grow 30 metres long in 6 months, up to a foot or more per day in summer!
How do you feel about the kelp forest when you are harvesting the fronds?
100% as soon as I am in the ocean I just feel like I’m among the Great Spirit. In the kelp forest realm you feel that sacredness around you.