Photos: What Wild Seaweed Teaches Us About Marine Ecosystems

Larry Knowles cutting Kombu (seaweed).

By Shilpi Chhotray

Harvesting seaweed is a unique and invigorating experience. I’ve experienced early mornings on the overcast California coastline with nothing but my dry suit and harvesting bag, gathering thick ropes of kelp in the cold, shallow waves. Seaweed is harvested during the lowest tide of the month when these ‘sea vegetables’ are most easily accessible. It grows in both saltwater and freshwater, and requires only sunlight to flourish. Once harvested, it dries naturally in the sun. What I’ve learned is simple: Seaweed is sustainability gold.

My interest in seaweed and expertise in ocean advocacy has given rise to Samudra Skin & Sea, a social enterprise that lies at the intersection of personal wellness, ecological sustainability and social consciousness. Samudra, the Indian word for ocean, is an organic skincare line featuring wild-harvested seaweed sourced in a socially- and eco-conscious manner. Our goal is to inspire protection of the global ocean and to empower rural women in India through seaweed harvesting opportunities. Genuine sustainability efforts based in science and implemented in conjunction with local ecological knowledge are key to our method and mission.

Our partner Larry Knowles, owner of Rising Tide Sea Vegetables and Mendocino’s resident seaweed expert, has been harvesting seaweed off the coasts of Northern California since 1995. He firmly believes that any sustainable use of ecological services requires bigger-picture systems thinking. At Samudra Skin & Sea, we are asking ourselves how other ocean functions are potentially impacted through harvesting actions. To avoid the ecological domino effects of mass wild gathering, Knowles monitors seaweed growth rates and densities through the year and tailors harvest size and methods to each location.

Harvesting seaweed, or “wildcrafting,” means never uprooting the plants — ensuring that the seaweed, which dies off in the winter, grows back the following year. This process, which involves cutting back half to three quarters of the seaweed blade, is akin to trimming hair. Knowles’ team does not harvest from an area more than once a year, ensuring protection for the innumerable marine creatures that rely on seaweed for shelter and food. The amount of produce he takes is determined by what and how much can be harvested at the forefront of his mind.

Knowles was a key stakeholder in the development of California’s monumental Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, which requires California to reevaluate all existing marine protected areas (MPAs) and potentially design new MPAs.

This experience taught him how multiple stakeholder perspectives help achieve balanced policy, ultimately resulting in successful management efforts. He’s also seen an upsurge of research in the last decade, which has led to important environmental policy measures and an increase in awareness of the importance of ecological services.

I asked Knowles about the coolest thing he’s seen while harvesting in the last 20 years. He described a brief encounter with a curious harbor seal that nudged his leg in three feet of water while he gathered seaweed. His story is testament to why we must maintain the vibrant oceanic ecosystems that sustain marine life and the human populations fundamentally connected to them. I await my next visit to the ocean’s gardens to help gather our next batch of wildcrafted seaweed for Samudra Skin & Sea.

A birds-eye view of Knowles harvesting seaweed in Northern California.

The author harvesting seaweed.

Seaweed drying in the sun.

Knowles heading out for harvest.

Image credits: 1) 4) and 5) Rising Tide Sea Vegetables 2) Shilpi Chhotray 3) Dave Gertler

Shilpi Chhotray is the Founder of Samudra Skin & Sea, an organic seaweed-enriched skincare line inspired by her love for the oceans. She is also a Senior Manager at Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement.

Follow Samudra Skin and Sea on Twitter, @SamudraSkinSea and Shilpi Chhotray @ShilpiChhotray.