It’s slippery, it’s slimy, it’s salty and it’s briny — and it may be the next “it” food. Whidbey Island has a bonafide cornucopia of seaweed along its shores and there are a variety of ways an adventurous eater can try a bite.
Indigenous cultures from all over the world have cooked with seaweed since time immemorial, but it’s not been very popular in Western cooking. Many Asian cultures also use various types of seaweed in soups and salads, and most people are familiar with the nori that chefs use in sushi.
“Seaweed is a food that has been questioned and kind of poked fun at,” said Western Washington University researcher and instructor Jennifer Hahn.
Her research focuses on contaminants in seaweed in the Salish Sea. She also wrote “Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to Pacific Northwest Foraging and Cuisine.”
“Now we’re coming to the place where top chefs from all over the world are working with seaweeds,” she said. “It’s really the next big food item.”
There are thousands of species of seaweed, and they are full of vitamins and minerals. Depending on the variety, they could be red, green, brown or black and can be found in everything from jelly to toothpaste. It’s also an essential building block of the marine ecosystem and any harvester should keep the future in mind when they head to the beach.
Karen Achabal has some experience foraging for seaweed after taking a class several years ago at Fort Casey State Park. Her favorite type is the reddish-brown nori found on most Whidbey beaches.
Besides drying it, she has also brushed it with a little bit of sesame oil and toasted it. She cautioned cooks to pay close attention as it can burn quickly. It will turn slightly greenish when toasted. She has also seen people take the blades of sugar kelp, also known as Saccharina latissima, and grind them into a powder for use in stocks and soups. A magazine she read as a kid showed how to turn bull kelp, also called Nereocystis luetkeana, into pickles.
Her advice to others delving into foraging of any kind is to brush up on species identification.
“The first time you’re eating anything, you would only want to eat a little bit of it to see how you react to it,” Achabal said. “And with plants, you never want to eat something you can’t identify.”
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife rules require seaweed harvesters to have a valid license. They are limited to 10 pounds of wet weight per day, and it is illegal to harvest any seaweed if herring eggs are attached. Harvesters can only use knives or similar instruments to cut seaweed and cannot tear or rake it.
All state park beaches are closed to seaweed harvesting except Fort Ebey, Fort Flagler and Fort Worden state parks. The three state parks are open to seaweed harvesting from April 16-May 15 each year. Harvesters can take seaweed from other areas year-round.
The rules for bull kelp harvesting are more specific. A harvester interested in bull kelp is limited to just the blades and must cut a minimum of 24 inches above the bulb.
Those harvesting short-stemmed kelps must cut a minimum of 12 inches above the anchor point.
The “anchor point,” or part of the kelp attached to rocks, must be left in place at all times.
Ralph Downes, an enforcement officer for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said those interested in the stalk of the bull kelp, also called the stipe, can collect it if it washes up on the shore or is floating freely in the water.
“We get large groups of it that wash up after storms,” he said.
Downes stressed that harvesters should check the area for contaminants and make sure the kelp looks fresh and vibrant.
Hahn said harvesters should also avoid kelp with chocolatey brown spots with a light ring around them because it signifies the piece has spores on it.
Hahn has been eating seaweed for about 40 years, and her Pacific Northwest-inspired cookbook tells aspiring chefs how to prepare it. Her bull kelp pickle recipe is inspired by the kelp picklers she met in Alaska. The result is a batch of golden rings that are tangy and sweet with a satisfying crunch.
She teaches others about foraging for wild foods as a way to encourage them to become stewards of the environment.
Underwater kelp forests house juvenile salmon that Southern Resident orcas depend on, provide shelter for otters and seals, and are home to a multitude of crabs, sea stars and invertebrates.
“I teach wild food because it’s an entryway into understanding how these plants fed people for all these years,” she explained. “I am here to teach them how to take care of these plants from now until the end of their lifetime.”
Some seaweed species are disappearing as the environment changes, Hahn said, noting a kelp bed near Squaxin Island has almost disappeared. Her study about seaweed contaminants in the Salish Sea is almost ready for publication.
Joe Smilie, a spokesperson for the state Department of Natural Resources, said pollutants, water chemistry and changing water temperatures may be to blame.
Smilie had some good news about the waters off Whidbey.
“The populations around Whidbey and Admiralty Inlet are doing pretty well, and it’s probably because the water gets flushed so often,” he said.
To conserve the underwater kelp forests, Hahn encouraged people to be conservative in their harvest. And, any piece of kelp that is not used can be thrown back on the beach.
“Cut just a couple blades off one — you don’t want to give it a crew cut,” she said, laughing. “Don’t eat a whole jar of pickles in a day.”
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.